Combatting Viruses, Trojans, Malware and Data Loss

While using a personal computer has become a source of both fun and frustration, there has been an increasing threat to your ability to block out unwanted software from unsavory people.

Protecting your computer takes several forms.

The four most common areas of desired protection:

  1. System configuration from unwanted change
  2. Data from being lost in one way or another
  3. Snooping in your financial data
  4. Physical wear and tear

All of these areas should be important to the common user, and let’s get started seeing how best to protect against these threats.

Protecting System configuration from unwanted change

Before we talk about how to protect your system configuration, let’s discuss what is, and what is not your system configuration.

What it is: Programs, and settings which allow your computer, and programs on it to work.
What it is not: Saved documents, music, downloaded email, and similar.
Gray areas: Desktop wallpaper, icon themes, your signature in your email program, and similar.

For protecting your programs, and settings, the best way to protect them is to *not change them*.

While this may seem obvious, it can be done one of four ways.

  1. Avoid changing it even though you have the permissions to change it.
  2. Restrict your daily privileges to deny your own ability to change it even if you wanted to without elevating your privileges.
  3. Backup / Restore
  4. Roll-back software

Most people use #1. This relies that you don’t make any accidental mistakes.

The best ways are #2, #3 and #4, so let’s discuss them in conjunction with one another.

For Windows XP users, let’s add a new account and use it for administrative tasks:

  1. Create a new administrative account using the following steps:
    1. Start -> Control Panel -> User Accounts -> Create a new account
    2. For the name, use something obvious, like, “AdminUser”
    3. Choose “Computer Administrator”
    4. Click “Create Account”
  2. Set an administrator password
    1. Click “AdminUser”
    2. Click “Create a Password”
    3. Type in a password of your own choosing
    4. Avoid typing the password into the hint box
    5. Click “Create Password”
  3. Change your existing account to “limited”
    1. Click on your account you use to login
    2. Click on “Change the account type”
    3. Click on “Limited”
    4. Click on “Change Account Type”

Now, for good measure, restart your computer.

In 3 general steps, you have already made your computer much harder to infect. Most malware will crash trying to install itself into your system.

Another good thing to do if it’s not already on, is to enable the Windows XP Firewall

Next, Backup / Restore

What is a backup? A backup is a copy of your data. Commonly used as assurance you won’t completely lose your information if the original is lost.

How can you make a backup?

  1. Check if your computer already came with recovery disks
    1. This basically restores all the files back to factory settings
    2. Some computer makers have an option to restore just system files and leave your personal files alone. This varies on a case by case basis.
  2. Use some free backup software:
    1. DriveImage XML over to a USB or network machine
    2. Windows Backup ( Start -> All Programs -> Accessories -> System Tools -> Backup )
  3. Use some paid software solution like (no special order):
    1. Norton Ghost
    2. Backup My PC
    3. Acronis TrueImage
    4. BootIt NG
    5. Image For Windows
    6. Nero Burning Rom
  4. Copy your files manually

While this list is far from exhaustive, you certainly get the idea.

Personally, I view important backup policy to have four aspects covered.

  1. Full system backups
    1. These allow you to restore in the event of critical failure, like a hard drive crash
  2. File backups
    1. If you have a lot of files or programs, it can be costly to backup everything every time. A good compromise is to backup only files which change since your last backup.
  3. Backup schedule
    1. Infrequent backups can be nearly as frustrating as complete data loss, as you may stand to lose all your work back to your last backup which may be months ago.
  4. Backup location
    1. Some people backup to their own hard drive. While this can help protect against accidental file deletion, it won’t help in issues of drive failure, theft, fire, or other loss which includes the original hard drive containing the original copy. I would suggest periodically making backups and putting them into your safe deposit box, or someplace away from your computer.

 

Rollback Software

If you like the idea of setting aside a part of your hard drive, or using a USB stick for your documents, and making your whole computer go back like it was every reboot, check out the following products:

(No particular order)

  1. Microsoft Shared Computer Toolkit for Windows XP
  2. Radix Protector
  3. Deep Freeze
  4. FirstWare Recover Pro 2004
    (note the Buy Now Link didn’t work the last I tried. After clicking it, just click the “Store Home” link)
  5. Norton GoBack

Protecting Data from being lost in one way or another

While backing up can also protect against data loss, there are different strategies which can help prevent your own files from being deleted, or damaged.

  1. Be patient.
    1. When a program opens slowly, avoid clicking around unnecessarily. Adding extra instructions to the queue of what the computer has to perform may cause you to accidentally perform steps which cause you to lose data.
  2. Be consistent.
    1. Saving files in many locations spread across your computer will only lead to confusing yourself and making it difficult to determine which file is correct, or where it even is.
  3. Avoid using “tricks” which have serious gotchas if you make a mistake.
    1. One such trick might be to open a file, delete everything, then trying to click “Save As” to give it a new name. This is very dangerous, and can lead to destroying the original, since “Save” is right next to it.
  4. Use your Recycle Bin.
    1. Don’t rush to delete files out of your Recycle Bin, the instant it goes in. Also, don’t use tricks like Shift + Delete to permanently delete files, skipping the recycle bin.
  5. Be verbose yet concise.
    1. Carefully consider the name of your file when you save. While it’s often one of the lower items on our priority lists since the name is fresh in your mind, you may feel you won’t forget what you named it. You will forget. So name it something appropriate and easy to remember later.
  6. Save often.
  • Some people wait hours and hours to save. Save often. Don’t lose hours of work because you didn’t take 2 seconds to hit save, or press CTRL + S.

Protecting Snooping in Your Financial Data

Preventing malware from entering your system using the limited user idea is certainly a strong way to keep spying eyes off your data.

However, there are some additional things you can do for this sort of thing.

  1. If you are already infected with malware – Reinstall.
    1. Don’t try to remove it unless you are willing to consider your computer unsafe for any online banking, passwords, websites, and related. Imagine that anything you type, any site you see, may be viewed by someone spying on you. Now that you understand that risk, maybe wiping out your computer and starting over may seem like a good idea.
  2. Stay away from programs and sites you have no business at.
    1. While it sounds like common sense, you would be suprised how many people try free software which they don’t need or even truly want, just on a whim. This software even if it’s not malicious may have bugs which could cause errors or data loss on your system.
    2. This advice is to include email attachments. Don’t open any attachment, unless you are 100% sure it’s safe. *Even from people you know!*
    3. This also includes keeping your kids from using the administrative account to install software which supposedly gives them free MP3s, movies, or other illegally gained goods.
    4. On a related note, many pornographic, and free games websites may contain hidden code to spy on your computer, or popup ads.
  3. Use different passwords.
    1. Write them down if you have to, and keep them in a safe place at your house.
    2. A long time ago, people at Hotmail were suprised to find some users trying to trick other users into giving them their passwords. This may seem strange considering hotmail accounts are free. What’s not strange is the fact that many people use the same passwords for non-critical information as their banks and financial passwords!
  4. Periodically scan with trusted anti-malware (no particular order)
    1. AdAware
    2. AVG
    3. ClamWin
    4. SpyBot
    5. Windows Defender
    6. Note: many anti-malware flag tracking cookies as “critical objects”. These are not critical unless you are worried about advertisers knowing who referred you to their site.

 

Protecting Against Physical Wear and Tear

Your computer can wear out causing irritating data loss, down-time, errors, and complete system failures.

Some common tricks to help you prevent unnecessary wear to your computer

  1. Check your computer system for hot spots.
    1. If your computer heats up when it’s idle to uncomfortable levels, chances are it’s even hotter when it’s being used intensively.
    2. Add fans if your system doesn’t have much air flow. A suprising number of systems have no case fans.
    3. Replace dying fans (don’t just smack them until they quiet down, since a noisy fan that suddenly goes quiet is usually dead).
    4. Take it out of the closed cabinet while it’s running. Don’t just lock it up in some cabinet, and expect it to get enough ventilation to cool properly.
  2. Attach your computer to a battery backup.
    1. Using a battery backup can help to block out both power surges *and dips*. Many come with software to shutdown your machine after a few minutes to prevent suddenly powering off. Get what your budget can afford, but I tend to buy 1000VA units and attach both my monitor and computer to it.
    2. Note: These kinds of batteries commonly last only about 3 years, and they may or may not be replaceable. A little research online can often tell you the story on replacement batteries.
  3. Periodically perform a system defragment.
    1. Start -> All Programs -> Accessories -> System Tools -> System Defragment
    2. Fragmented files can make your system work harder. The basic concept is your computer reuses space freed up by other files no longer needed. As this happens eventually you end up with files with lots of “fragments” because they are scattered around wherever they fit.
  4. Shutdown your computer if you are leaving your computer for a few hours.
    1. Some people debate back and forth on this. My thought is this. If your computer were to have a fire in the power supply, it would *of course* happen when you are gone.
    2. I tend to think of powering on a computer about like a flourescent bulb. Not efficient for just a few minutes as you wear out the ballast. Leaving it on 24/7 is a waste. Pick something inbetween.
  5. Turn off that screensaver!
    1. Your screensaver is only going to waste power. Shut-off the screen using the power options
    2. Right click your desktop -> Properties -> Screen Saver, Choose none, or blank screen. Then change the power options to turn off the power when your computer is idle using the Power… button.
  6. Your computer is not a CD/DVD player
    1. Using your computer for repeated playing of CD music, and DVD movies is a good way to turn a $1000 computer into a disposable $35 walkman or $50 DVD player for your TV. Be smart, and don’t wear out your computer doing silly stuff.

Well, that’s all for now. If you have comments, please post them below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *