What's The Deal With Computer Viruses


What's All the Hype?

As more computers are wired to the Internet, the chances for your computer contracting a "virus" grow accordingly. You infinitely increase your chances of contracting a virus every time you download software, or accept attachments through e-mail. Everybody has heard horror stories about computer viruses, but few people really know much about them, or how to stop them. If you are going to be spending time on the Internet, you should invest some time in learning about computer viruses and how to deal with them.

This tutorial will provide you a crash course on computer viruses. We hope to help you learn to deal with computer viruses, not to panic, and tell you how this may affect your technology experience.

What is A Computer Virus?

A virus is a program designed to corrupt other programs and alter the way those programs work. The impact of a virus can range from making your computer crash when a certain key or series of keys is pushed, to deleting important files, and to the extreme: possibly rendering your computer inoperable.

Before getting all worked up about viruses, it's important to understand the limitations of a computer virus. Viruses are programs that infect other programs, or files containing macros (a series of commands grouped together to automate a complex series of tasks) such as Microsoft Word files, Microsoft Excel files and executable files. Computer viruses cannot, do not, and will not infect plain text files, such as e-mail messages and Web pages, nor can they infect pictures or chat groups. Virus programmers are getting better at transmitting viruses, some new high tech viruses can exploit the security system of popular e-mail programs and activate and begin replicating without the user even being aware.

The name "virus" is appropriate, because like a biological virus, a computer virus is small, makes copies of itself, and cannot exist without a host. (It's also a catchier name than Parasitic Self-Replicating Program.)

The Big Computer Virus Hoax

It seems like someone on our staff receives e-mail every week, warning of the next big virus. The e-mail always warns you that if you receive an e-mail infected with this virus, your computer will virtually be attacked and turn into a machine that will seek and destroy! This scenario is not possible and is usually 99.9% of the time a hoax, or a misinterpretation on someone's part.

If you are warned about a virus and want to verify if it is real or not, you can visit one of the many Web sites that keep track of and research computer viruses. Both Norton and McAfee are among companies that have very informative sites on this topic.

The Life Cycle Of A Computer Virus?

Viruses embed themselves into the code of software; they are harmless until the infected program is actually started (executed). Once you have started an infected application or opened an infected file, the virus in it can spread to other applications and files on the computer. If this happens, software or files you send to friends, family, or coworkers via diskette, the Internet, or Local Area Network may be infected, passing the virus to their computers.

*Who Writes Viruses- and Why?*

Viruses can be written by anyone, anywhere in the world, who has enough programming skills. In most cases, it doesn't even take that much time. It could include researchers for demonstration purposes and in some cases, they can be written by pranksters. In many cases, these viruses get passed around and can be altered by other people.

Are All Computer Viruses Harmful?

Every computer virus ever written takes up disk space, and many of them are able to remain in the computer's memory taking control over some computer functions. In addition, some viruses are poorly written and may cause the computer to halt, or damage files. Many viruses make the computer's memory unstable, or cause programs to run improperly. Then there are viruses created in recent years that have been deliberately designed to destroy data on the disk. Sometimes viruses will even be on a timer and won't start replicating until a certain time or date, like the April Fool's bug, the millennium bug, etc.

Viruses cause strange things to happen including: slower processing, decreased memory, a disk drive LED lighting up for no apparent reason, or even a screen going blank when you touch a certain letter on your keyboard . However, legitimate software can also cause these effects. And while some viruses are very obvious, displaying messages, or even playing musical tunes, many give no sign of their presence. So it's important not to assume your computer is infected, just because strange things happen.

What They Don't Tell You

  • For the most part, viruses are contracted by downloading files from the Internet. It's theorized that close to 75% of all viruses are contracted through friendly means. Meaning that your friends are the one's giving you the viruses. To protect yourself just run a virus scan on any executable (.exe) files or MS Word/Excel Files that are emailed to you from friends.
  • Although many people tell you that your computer cannot get a virus from an e-mail message, unless you run an attached file that is sent along with that e-mail message, many popular e-mail programs have become targets of virus makers as of late. The virus developers have found a way to exploit the useful feature of e-mail clients such as MS Outlook Express. Although Microsoft has released many patched versions to correct these problems, how many people actually update their e-mail programs monthly. Our recommendations are to use less popular e-mail clients; virus developers don't target these e-mail clients.
  • Mac users are less prone to contracting computer viruses. Again, remember virus creators are looking for the highest body count, in this case confused and annoyed PC computer users.
  • Anti-virus software is not a cure all. There are many viruses that Anti-virus software may not even recognize on your computer. There are also many instances where Anti-virus software may be able to recognize a virus, but not be able to do anything about it. This can be frustrating when you purchase software that supposed to fix your computer, only to find out it can't help you with your particular situation.

When you are infected with a virus, the thing that really helps is to reformat your hard drive and any other medium that has infected files and then, start with a clean slate. This is the only true way to wipe out every possibility of the virus. You'll also find that your computer is more responsive and quicker once you reformat. Many computer enthusiasts reformat their computers annually just to keep their machine running smoothly.

The Bottom Line

  • To prevent your computer from contracting a virus, use a virus protection program. We recommend Norton products. They are a leader in field and consistently outperform their competitors in side-by-side expert testing.
  • Don't open email that is suspicious or that you don't recognize the senders name.
  • Keep updated on what viruses are going around.
  • Always back up your files!
  • If your computer does contract a virus, be prepared to reformat and start all over again!

Hopefully, you will not be the victim of a virus!