Watch out for pesty computer viruses

Editors note: This is one of several columns that I wrote for the Columbia Missourian. They were originally called Your Digital World

Have you taken care of your computer’s health lately? Viruses can inflict varying degrees of damage from sending out annoying e-mails to wiping data off your hard drive.

Most viruses fall into one of the following three categories:

Viruses as programs: These nasty bugs are what I call “old school” because they’ve been around the longest. They come in the form of a program, just like Microsoft Word or Solitaire, only they are malicious.

They can do almost anything from wiping your hard drive to displaying annoying messages. They often will attach parts of themselves to files so that when you send an accounting report to your boss it’ll infect his computer. Their biggest limitation is their method of infection; an initially clean computer must run the virus program or receive an infected file.

The Internet revolution brought would-be infectors who could send you the program via e-mail. Once you opened it, your computer was infected. Now, you don’t even have to click.

Viruses you can thank Microsoft for: As software publishers began making programs that would protect your files, virus programmers began taking advantage of macros, which are mini-programs. For example, in Microsoft Word, I have a macro that automatically types my name and student number and formats the page so I can type a report for class.

Microsoft made writing these macros easier and expanded their capabilities. They weren’t trying to make the world easier for virus writers, just as a baseball bat wasn’t meant to be used against a victim by a criminal.

Macros can be used to do all the nasty things “old-school” viruses did. Worse, most programs that use macros run them without you knowing.

Microsoft’s Outlook and Outlook Express are commonly used as virus propagators. Typically, when the bug arrives buried within an e-mail it sends copies to everyone in your address book. As the so-called “worm” replicates itself, server after server gets overloaded with traffic. Sircam and Code Red are two recent notorius “worms.”

You can be a virus: I don’t know where they start, or who writes them, but somewhere out there are thousands of useless forwards. These messages often tell you that by forwarding them on to so many people you’ll get paid, or it’ll send a protest to Microsoft or help feed starving children, etc. They’re not true. When you forward them to everyone in your address book, you’re doing exactly what “worms” do.

Anti-virus programs can stop most types, including macro type viruses. If you already have an anti-virus program, make sure to keep your virus definitions up-to-date. This file tells the program what digital clues to look for so that it can kill viruses. Check the program’s Web site or the help file to find out how to update the files, which can usually be done over the Internet.

If you don’t have a program and you’re like me and don’t want to spend a lot, check out free AVG Anti-Virus (www.grisoft.com) or consult with your office’s technology department. You may be able to get a copy of its software for your home computer.

Errata: For those like me who are enraged about the quality of tech support, (see the Oct. 5 column), you’ll be even more enraged to know that Symantec and McAffee, makers of two of the most popular anti-virus software programs, have announced they’re discontinuing free telephone tech support. Even more insidious, Symantec’s phone line tells you it won’t charge your credit card if the problem you have is an admitted defect in the product. So if they never admit any defects…? Don’t worry, I’ll answer your e-mails for free.

About Chris

Python developer, Agile practitioner trying desperately not to be a pointy haired boss.
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