If only the internet was full of these signs. Unfortunately, real malware doesn’t come with a warning, a disclaimer or any other form of advisory. One moment you’re browsing the internet, and the next moment you’re on the phone with some technician unsure of why your computer won’t start up.
It’s something first-time computer users frequently experience, but even regular users aren’t immune from making the occasional mistake. Luckily, there are steps you can take to avoid the awkward situation in the first place. Prevention should always be your focus. Once you’ve got some types of malware, it may be too late to fully salvage your machine.
Be forewarned: all malware comes from the internet. On some rare occasions, it can be put in your system directly over a local network (usually unsecured WiFi), but most of the time it’s going to be from being online. If you absolutely need a machine to be 100 percent free of any kind of malicious software, having that machine offline is the surest way.
Assuming you actually want to use your machine, you’ll want to start with a few basic pieces of software.
Malware - Virtual Private Networks Are Your Friends
There are certain ways to contract malware manually, and we’ll get to that in a moment. You’ll first want to secure your internet connection to prevent malicious, more direct forms of attack. Your ordinary connection can be viewed by just about anyone with the know-how, especially if you’re connecting to public WiFi.
Your IP address is visible to any website you visit, and on an unsecured connection, it isn’t so difficult for someone to reach directly into your computer or to insert packets of bad data into what you download. To put a halt to these problems, you can subscribe to a VPN service.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a remote server you connect to before the rest of the internet. By doing so, your IP address becomes obscured and the server’s is displayed instead. Your connection also becomes encrypted, preventing anyone else from reading what you’re sending or receiving.
You won’t have to worry about hackers so long as you’re connected to a VPN. According to SecureThoughts.com, there are a few good options available, but ExpressVPN is by far the best. The service isn’t free, but it allows you to use the internet uninhibited.
While computers usually come with some form of anti-virus software, that software is usually a trial that later requires you to pay. Unlike VPNs, there are plenty of free options available that work just as well as the paid versions. Programs such as Avast, AVG, or Panda all offer their services for free (with options for premium features), so long as you aren’t using them for a business.
They also offer mobile options to keep your phones and tablets safe. These types of anti-virus software help prevent you from acquiring malware by scanning files you download and helping determine if links are safe. They’re also good for removing some viruses you already have, though there are more powerful tools for that.
Knowledge is Power
Aside of security software, knowing what is safe and what isn’t can save you a ton of headaches when it comes to malware. There are a few danger signals you should be on the lookout for whenever something pops up on the internet that you aren’t familiar with.
Watch for any links or pictures that solicit or ask you to click on them. Any kind of link that says “click here,” “you’ve won,” or anything similar is likely a source of trouble. That goes double for anything that looks like it could be on the cover of the tabloids. These links are an invitation for malware and spyware.
- Stolen Accounts
Though similar to Clickbait, stolen accounts can be much harder to deal with because someone you trust is asking you to do something (or at least that’s how it appears). Often, someone you know had their account stolen on social media and wants you to follow a link somewhere. Beware if their speech/typing seems out of character, as it may not be them.
Like most scams, phishing scams involve creating websites meant to imitate real, legitimate sites. Often they’ll begin with an email and take you to a page to input your login details. But once you’ve put the info in, it’s too late; now someone has your account info. Check the webpage’s address to see through these scams. They often pair the scam with malware.
- Out of Date Software
It can be annoying to keep software up to date that doesn’t automatically update, but sometimes old versions of software get updated because a security vulnerability is discovered. These exploits may be used to insert bad data into your system, leaving you with a nasty virus.
- Unsafe Websites
It’s a bit harder to tell when a website is unsafe, but if you see any of the elements above, it’s a good sign to steer clear. Less scrupulous websites may have lower security standards, leaving themselves open to hackers who may alter their coding and lead to trouble for you.
If you’re really careful and use good security software, you’ll usually be okay. But even the most secure of us sometimes make mistakes. Sometimes you let someone else use your computer who isn’t so educated about internet security and wind up with a virus. So what should you do?
The best place to start is usually with a useful program called Malwarebytes Anti-Malware. I’ve been using it for years to help friends and family who’ve run into serious malware problems, and it works in the majority of cases. Ideally you’ll want to keep a copy on a flash drive or some other external device, so you’ll have a fresh copy isolated from any viruses.
If, however, Malwarebytes doesn’t work, you may need to do a little research. Start by searching for the symptoms your computer is experiencing (usually on another computer) to see if other users have run into similar problems.
The solution is sometimes a specialized piece of software designed to remove your specific malware. It can be a little frustrating, and on Windows, it may require starting in safe mode (press F8 when your computer is turning on to access the boot menu). In safe mode, most malware won’t start, and you’ll be able to remove it without it interfering.
Despite your efforts, there may be malware that you find yourself unable to remove. When all else fails, you have two “reserve” options:
- Call a Professional
It’s not my favorite option because it can be pretty expensive. But sometimes a professional may be needed to remove more difficult malware (the kind that can destroy your computer). However, hiring a professional may just lead to the final option anyway.
The most regrettable situation may sometimes be to reformat your machine and install everything fresh. If you’re stuck with this option, you should still perform a scan afterwards; there have been cases where wiping your drive doesn’t remove everything.
The hope is that following the above preventative measures will keep things from ever getting bad enough to call a professional or restart from scratch. These measures are the worst possible outcome, so only use them if you have no other choice.
Have you ever lost any really important data? Was it to a virus, or something else? Tell us about it in the comments.