Protect your computer from viruses

Want to protect your computer from Internet viruses and infections? Here's how - and it won't even cost you much.

Every time you open your e-mail, there's another urgent warning telling you to avoid the latest, nastiest virus. According to some of these messages, you can't even turn your computer on without risking infection. The newest bug will give your dog fleas, eat all of your CDs, implant nail fungus in your thumb and turn you in to the IRS. It's almost to the point where you don't even want to be a PC user anymore.

The good news: none of that is possible. Computer viruses are only capable of destroying files on your hard drive if you open the programs in which they are embedded. So, if you receive an e-mail attachment from an unknown sender and delete it without ever opening it, you're safe. However, if you open it and then click the attachment, you run a high risk of infection.

Keeping your computer secure isn't difficult or expensive: in fact, it's MUCH cheaper than reformatting your entire hard drive, re-installing ALL of your programs, and losing at least one day of work time because it's in the shop for said repairs. All it takes is common sense and one program, which can be had for thirty dollars or less.

Before you do ANYTHING on the Internet, you need to download/buy and install an antivirus program. There are plenty to choose from, but try to stick with those that have been tried, tested and trusted. If you already have an antivirus (some Internet providers package it with their online software), you can either stick with it or go online and search product-review Web sites for opinions from actual users. These are sometimes poorly written and hard to read, but you'll often find very intelligent and helpful comments to help you decide what to buy.

Features that you'll want with whatever program you choose include:

Automatic definition updates. This means you can install the program and not worry about remembering to check the Web site every day for updates: the software will do it for you if you enable and schedule this function. This is vital because new viruses are unleashed every day. If your antivirus program's definitions aren't up-to-date, you run the risk of catching an infected file. This is even worse than not having any protection at all, because you're lulled into believing that you're fine because you just installed the software three months ago.

Total-system safeguarding. Your program should protect ALL Internet applications (especially Web browsers and e-mail clients) as well as word processors, which can carry or spread viruses. This doesn't mean you can't accept attachments of your best friend's creative writing projects: you just have to be careful, pay attention, and make sure you're protected.

When you install the program, be sure to enable the settings and features you want. If you don't, you're not doing anything to protect yourself. Don't forget to check periodically to be sure it's still running and ready to safeguard your system.

Most of the virus protection comes from your common sense, though: thinking about what you're doing and not being suckered in by things that look good but really aren't. For example: if you receive an e-mail from someone you don't know, and there's an attachment listed, do not open it. In fact, ask everyone on your e-mail list to either copy-paste their text into the message body or e-mail you in advance asking permission to attach a file.

Most programs require you to update your subscription periodically. They'll give alerts and reminders on your computer screen so you don't have to mark a calendar or keep mental notes: be sure to update as soon as possible so you don't forget and find yourself with a virus two months later.

Another big Internet problem is spyware: unwanted programs that some Web sites and programs install without your knowledge or express permission. Right now there's not much that can be done about it except to detect and remove them as often as possible. They slow down your computer, collect data (such as the names and addresses of sites you visit), and sometimes even crash your system if they get out of hand.

The best way to prevent them is to find a good anti-spyware program. These can be found free online or cheap at a computer store. After installing the software, you run it as often as you wish (or whenever you schedule it to run itself), and let it search for unwanted programs on your computer. Since these can be linked to virus invasions, it's a very good idea to keep up with spyware-hunting: your computer will thank you for it.

Most importantly: don't be afraid to use the Internet. If you safeguard your computer and pay attention to where you go online and what you do in the way of file-sharing, you shouldn't have anything to worry about. The online world is the largest collection of information available, so don't hesitate to take advantage of it.

© High Speed Ventures 2011