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Spyware, Viruses, and Spam

Friends and family often ask me if the latest Windows virus craze is real, or if they should be worried that their personal computer might get infected. Well, honestly, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" Malware (the term used to describe spyware, viruses and spam) is a huge problem these days, and everyone should be taking at least basic precautions to avoid it.

The main reason that viruses spread so easily across the world of Windows computers is that Microsoft writes bad software (at least when it comes to web browsers and email clients). They refuse to close security holes in a timely manner or fix even the most basic problems that lead users to inadvertently and unknowingly let viruses, spam and spyware infect their computers.

If you don't run Windows, you probably don't need to read much further than this. If you use a Mac, you're pretty much safe (other than a couple of "macro viruses" for Microsoft Word); there aren't enough of you out there that virus writers care about you, and Apple actually takes care of their users to make sure that their systems are relatively difficult for malware to infect.

The good news is that it's fairly easy to at least provide yourself some basic protection against all of this stuff!

  • Turn on Automatic Windows Updates
    • Microsoft provides this great utility specifically so you don't have to worry about when new security fixes are released. You just have to turn it on, and it'll do the rest of the work for you, making sure that your computer is always up to date.
  • Install Anti-virus software
    • AVG makes a very good antivirus program that is free for personal/home use. I haven't figured out any reason why you should actually pay for anything else when this one is free and works great.
    • I'm also a big fan of Avast! anti-virus, which is also free for home use. It even integrates with Thunderbird to scan your email.
  • Install Microsoft's Anti-spyware tool
    • Microsoft knows that spyware is a problem, and they recently purchased the maker of a very good spyware removal tool. Go to the Microsoft Anti-spyware website and download/install this very good program (one of the best I've seen for removing and protecting against spyware).
  • Don't use Outlook or Outlook Express
    • Microsoft added a lot of features to allow email advertisers to track your reading habits (among other things), and spammers and virus writers quickly took advantage of using these gaping security holes, and now use them to do things like install spyware and viruses onto your machine without you doing anything more than reading an email (even clicking on a bad email in order to delete it will load it into the preview window, which counts as "reading" the message).
    • Take a look instead at Thunderbird, a totally free email client that's guaranteed to make your life easier. It has an awesome built-in spam filter.
  • Don't use Internet Explorer
    • Besides blatantly and intentionally ignoring standards for designing web pages, Internet Explorer is full of security holes that leave your computer open to viruses and spyware that can (among other things) install themselves onto your computer without you doing anything more than viewing a web page hosted on an infected server.
    • Use Firefox instead. This awesome browser has been getting a lot of press lately, and with good cause. It's fast, standards-compliant, is updated quickly when the rare security problem is discovered, and has dozens of new features like popup blockers to keep your screen free from advertising spam.
    • If you absolutely must use IE, at least make sure that you have upgraded to version 7, which includes a number of fixes to the underlying security problems (though Firefox is still the better option).

Both Firefox and Thunderbird support extensions that you can install to gain even greater usability and/or protection from malware. Take a look at some of my favorites, along with some information about how/why you might find them useful.

Posted on January 12th 2007