How to protect your computer against viruses

Like home foreclosures and bed bugs, computer viruses are things you increasingly read about in the papers but fervently hope you will never have to deal with. Unfortunately, as many people are finding out, hope is proving to be a very poor form of prevention.

There are literally millions of computer viruses already in existence and thousands more are created every day. It’s no longer a case of if your computer will be attacked by a virus but when. However, there are certain actions you can take to reduce the risk of a picking up a virus, and you don’t have to be a security expert to adopt a few elementary safeguards.

But first, a little bit more about viruses, and how you might be able to tell if you are infected.

What is a virus?

A computer virus is a small software program that spreads from one computer to another computer. Although some viruses are benign, others can attack data and seriously affect a computer’s performance. Viruses increase their chances of spreading to other computers by using communication programs like e-mail or instant messaging, or by infecting network system files.

How are viruses spread?

Computer viruses are most easily spread by attachments in e-mail messages. They can be disguised as documents, images, audio and video files, or even greeting cards. Computer viruses can also be hidden in pirated software or in downloads from the Web.

How can I tell if my computer is infected with a virus?

The following are some of the primary indicators that your computer may be infected with a virus, although some of these problems can also be caused by other factors:

  • Your computer is running slower than usual.
  • Your computer locks up or stops responding.
  • Your computer suddenly restarts on its own.
  • Programs you regularly use are suddenly slow to load and operate.
  • Applications and disk drives are suddenly inaccessible.
  • Unusual error messages appear.
  • New, unexpected icons appear on the desktop.
  • Anti-virus software is disabled or will not run.

How to protect your computer against viruses?

Practice safe computing. Don’t click on random links that lead to unknown files and web sites. Never open an e-mail attachment unless you know who sent the message and you are expecting the attachment. Avoid searching for free stuff and visiting adult or pirate web sites, as these will all increase your chances of encountering malware.

Also, avoid clicking on random computer scanning or “clean-up” services, as these links can often lead to the acquisition of viruses, or are phishing scams looking to capture your credit card information.

Other actions you can take:

  • Use a Firewall. A firewall can help alert you to suspicious activity across your network. It can also block viruses, worms, and hackers from attempting to download potentially harmful programs to your computer. If you are using Windows 7, make sure the Windows Firewall is turned on.
  • Keep your software up-to-date. Microsoft, and now Apple, periodically release special security updates that can help protect your computer by closing possible security holes. In Windows, make sure automatic updating is turned on.
  • Install an anti-virus program. Installing an anti-virus program and keeping it up-to-date can help protect your computer against viruses. New viruses appear on a daily basis, so choose an anti-virus program that is regularly updated by the manufacturer.

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