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Malware, part 2: Protecting yourself from online threats

Posted April 6th, 2010 by Adrian Santangelo

It’s time to learn how to protect yourself from malware and other online threats. By following a few simple steps, you can help remain a step ahead and know how to react if something does get through your defenses.

Install updates: Both Mac and Windows systems have periodic updates that should be performed. These are more critical in Windows, as they frequently address known security issues with the operating system. Malware authors use these known holes to exploit the system, sometimes by just loading a malicious Web site. The term “drive-by infection” is often used to describe such an attack.

Keep your operating system, browser and any third-party extensions they use (Flash, Adobe Reader, Java Runtime, etc.) up to date. This is just as important, if not more so, than having an anti-virus program.

Use anti-malware programs: There are a variety of anti-virus programs available, and not all are created equal.

In our experience, the most popular ones provide sub-par protection. These include Norton, McAfee, Panda, CA and Trend Micro. Though widely used and popular, most of them cause more problems than they solve, slowing the system down or creating compatibility issues. They do not provide the level of protection needed in the harsh online environment.

The anti-virus programs we’ve come to use include ESET NOD32, Kaspersky and Microsoft Security Essentials (or ForeFront Client Security). You may not have heard of these, but we’ve been watching the malware vs. anti-malware trends for more than a decade. These programs have proven themselves to be competent anti-virus solutions, not just a pretty interface.

Another application that deserves mention is Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, or MBAM for short. Over the last few years, this freeware gem has proven itself time and time again as an excellent form of defense. The paid version is proactive, providing a resident shield like an anti-virus, while the freeware version is reactive, giving you an excellent on-demand scanner.
If you don’t have it installed currently, do so now. Many infections block its installation once they have control of the system.

Practice safe computing habits: The vast majority of malware comes from Web sites and downloads. The most often exploited sites and services include game-cheat sites, game/software crack sites, porn sites, peer-to-peer (P2P) sites and programs, fake search results or ads, and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t ever visit Facebook again, but you should practice proper habits when utilizing any of the sites described above. Be careful what you download or install and always read the EULA, the long legalese commonly found when installing software. Look for indications of ad-supported or 3rd party inclusions.

No matter how hard you try, many still find themselves with a sick computer. In our shop, it’s uncommon for a system to come in that is not infected. One of the standard diagnostics we do is a visual malware check. Though scanners are great, they can’t catch everything. It takes a trained eye to find some of the nasties I discussed in my last column (March 30).

If you do think you have a bug, the first step is to stop using your system for normal use. Many of these infections are designed to steal information, so typing a password or even checking your e-mail can have drastic side effects.

Next, update your anti-virus program and perform a full system scan. If it finds anything, follow the instructions it provides to remove it.

Just because it comes up clean doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.

Following the anti-virus scan, run scans with some of the common anti-malware tools, such as MBAM, SpyBot Search and Destroy, Lavasoft Ad-Aware and a-Squared Antimalware.

Each of these tools can find things the others miss, so it never hurts to run through them all. If malware is not allowing you to install anti-malware software or not letting you go online at all, seek help from someone more knowledgeable.

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