Common virus myths dispelled

September 25, 2013 

The most important invention of the last 100 years is debatable, but many would agree that the computer has to be among the top. These complex machines helped usher in the information age. Unfortunately, they come with a downside: Destructive malware such as viruses have become a major problem for businesses because viruses have been built up to such mythical proportions that many users simply don't know fact from fiction.

Here are five common myths about viruses, and the truths associated with them. Before we delve deeperit would be a good idea to explain what a virus is.

A virus is a program that infects a computer and can generally copy itself and infect other computers. Most viruses aim to cause havoc by either deleting important files or rendering a computer inoperable. Most viruses have to be installed by the user, and usually come hidden as programs and browser plugins.

You may hear the term malware used interchangeably with virus. Malware is short for malicious software and is more of an umbrella term that covers any software that aims to cause harm. A virus is simply a type of malware.

Myth 1: Error messages

A common thought

many have when their computer shows an error message is that they must have a virus. In truth, bugs in the software, a faulty hard drive, memory or even issues with your virus scanner are more likely the cause. The same goes if your computer crashes, it likely could be because of something other than a virus.

When you do see error messages, or your computer crashes while trying to run a program or open a file, you should scan for viruses, just to rule it out.

Myth 2: Computers can infect themselves

It's not uncommon to have clients bring their computers to a techie exclaiming that a virus has magically appeared on the system. Despite what some may believe, viruses cannot infect computers by themselves. Users have to physically open an infected program, or visit a site that hosts the virus and download it.

To minimize the chance of being infected you should steer clear of any adult oriented sites -- they are often loaded with viruses. A good rule of thumb is: If the site has illegal or 'adult' content, it likely has viruses that can and will infect your system if visited, or if files are downloaded from there.

Myth 3: Only PCs can get viruses

If you read the news, you likely know that many of the big viruses and malware infect mostly systems running Windows. This has led users to believe that other systems like Apple's OS X are virus free. The truth: All systems could be infected by a virus, it's just that the vast majority of them are written to target Windows. This is because most computers run Windows. That being said, there is an increasing number of threats to OS X and Linux, as these systems are becoming more popular. If this trend keeps up, we will see an exponential rise in the number of viruses infecting these systems.

Myth 4: If I reinstall Windows and copy all my old files over, I'll be ok

Some believe that if their system has been infected, they can simply copy their files onto a hard drive, or backup solution, reinstall Windows and then copy their files back and the virus will be gone.

Wiping your hard drive and reinstalling Windows will normally get rid of any viruses. However, if the virus is in the files you backed up, your computer will be infected when you move the files back and open them. The key here is that if your system is infected, you need to scan the files and remove the virus before you put them back onto your system.

Myth 5: Firewalls protect networks from viruses

Windows comes with a firewall and many users have been somewhat misled as to what it actually does, and that firewalls can protect from viruses. That's a half truth. Firewalls are actually for network traffic, their main job is to secure networks and computers connected to them; they don't scan for viruses. Where they could help is if a virus is sending data to a computer outside of your network. In theory, a firewall will pick up this traffic and alert you to it, or stop the flow of data outright. Some of the bigger viruses actually turn off the firewall, rendering your whole network open to malware attacks.

There are many things you can do to minimize the chances of infection. The most important is to install a virus scanner on all of your systems, keep it up to date and run it regularly. But a defensive strategy like this isn't enough, you need to be proactive by:

• Not installing programs from sources you don't know or trust

• Being wary of any program that asks you for your password

• Not installing any browser add-ons or plugins suggested by websites. Instead, download them from the browser's app store, or the developer's website.

David Spire, president and CEO of United Systems, holds multiple professional certifications, including Microsoft's Small Business Specialist. He can be reached at 941.721.6423 or by email at david.spire@uscomputergroup.com.

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