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Issue: 57 - Sep 15, 2013
Computer Health 101
By: Robert Malinowski, DVM, MA
Robert Malinowski, DVM, MA

The internet can be a dangerous place.  Every day, you have the potential of encountering countless things that can damage your computer and compromise your personal information.  Threats come in a wide variety of forms, with names like viruses, malware and spyware.  The creators of these malicious bits of computer code have varying objectives.  Some just want to cause chaos by making your computer run slowly, or cutting off your access to the internet.  Others seek to steal your data, which may include passwords and baking information.  Some want to gain full control of your computer in order to use it for their own purposes (without you even knowing!).  Luckily, there are many ways to avoid falling victim to such schemes.  You can keep your computer squeaky clean and in your complete control.  If something does go awry, there are several tools available to help you clean things up quickly and easily.

Email Tips

For many people, email has become their primary method of communication.  I don’t find myself crafting too many handwritten letters on paper to friends, family or colleagues these days.  Email is quick and easy and available on just about every device you carry.  Because of its widespread nature, email is often used to spread viruses and other nasty things.  A few quick email tips that can save you a lot of headache:

  • Never open an email attachment (file) from someone you don’t know.  Viruses can be hidden in any type of file.  If you don’t recognize the name of the person who sent you a file, don’t open it!
  • Your email administrator will NEVER ask for your password, bank account number, etc. over email.  If you receive any request for personal information of this nature over email, it is a scam. 
  • Emails can be “spoofed”.  Pay close attention to the name on an email you received, and the actual email address it came from.  The message may say it came from “Bob Smith”, but if the actual email address isn’t something you recognize, delete that message!
  • Don’t open links from emails that look suspicious.  If you don’t recognize the link in the message, or the person that sent it, delete it!  With a little simple creativity, a link that looks like it’ll take you to http://goodsite.com can be disguised to take you to http://stealyourpassword.com

System Tune-Ups

Computers are a lot like cars.  You can’t use it for extended amounts of time without expecting to do some basic maintenance.  Of course, you won’t need to worry about changing your computer’s oil or rotating its tires, but you will need to do some occasional upkeep.  No operating system is perfect.  There are always some bugs to be found in a few million lines of code.  Most cars have recalls at some point, which are ways for the manufacturer to fix little issues that always tend to pop up after you drive off the lot.  System updates are the equivalent in the computer world.  They are typically small bugs or security flaws that need to be fixed to keep your computer in tip top condition.  Unlike car recalls, they tend to occur on a much more frequent basis.

Luckily, most computers have an automatic update feature that can help eliminate the hassle of dealing with updates.  Make sure this automatic feature is enabled on your computer and you’ll always be up to date.  Cut your computer some slack if it’s nagging you to update, and possible reboot, your computer.  It’s just trying to help.  The longer you put it off, the more updates you’ll need to install at once.

Protective Software

One of the easiest ways to prevent a lot of problems is to make sure you have antivirus software installed and running.  Viruses are a lot more common on Windows, but they do happen on Apple computers as well.  This is a crucial piece of software on your computer, as essential as a front door is to your home.  Luckily, there are many free options out there so won’t even cost you anything!  Quick, easy and free.  This really seems like a no-brainer…

There are a lot of options out there, but the three best free ones (in my opinion) are Avast!, Avira and AVG.  Take your pick.  But don’t install more than one, as that can cause issues.  Some of the products will even scan your email, so that’s a great second level of protection.

You’ll also want something that can help block malware - annoying programs that aren’t quite the same as viruses, but can steal wreak havoc on your computer and potentially steal personal information.  I prefer Ad-Aware and Malwarebytes for this purpose.

Keep It Updated!

This is probably the most important thing to keep in mind, so this deserves its own paragraph.  After you’ve installed your choice of antivirus and anti-malware software, make sure you keep things updated.  There are new viruses every day, so it’s extremely important to keep your protective software up to date.  Otherwise, your software won’t be able to identify what’s good and what’s evil.  This is usually referred to as the “antivirus definitions”.  Without the latest list of baddies, you’re a sitting duck.  Much like operating system updates, antivirus updates are typically automatic.  So, once again, let your computer do its thing and run its updates and scans on a regular basis.  I recommend setting your antivirus program up for a weekly scan.  Let it run overnight so it won’t interrupt your Facebook and Solitaire activities.  Also, keep in mind that no software lasts forever.  The version of AVG you installed back in 2009 will need to be replaced with a newer version.  I typically recommend installing the latest and greatest version at least twice each year.

Uh Oh…  Something went wrong

You eat healthy, take your vitamins every day and wash your hands regularly.  Yet, sometimes you still get a cold.  Despite your best efforts with your computer, you may still get a virus or malware infection.  Those virus writers are crafty, and it’s always a cat and mouse game between them and the antivirus companies.  If you are infected, don’t panic.  Make sure your antivirus program is up to date and run a full scan as soon as possible.  Check your operating system updates too and make sure things are in order.  If that doesn’t do the trick, you may need to try a different approach.

If things get really bad, I recommend a different approach.  Many of the free antivirus companies offer products that can be burned to CD, or copied to a USB drive.  You can then start your computer directly from this media and scan from there.  This approach doesn’t allow most viruses to activate, so it’s a lot easier to clean them up this way.

Be Safe Out There

The internet is a wondrous place, but it can also be very dangerous.  Much like driving a car, I prefer to take a defensive approach, keeping a watchful eye on the drivers around me.  Stay smart about your email and surfing habits and you can easily avoid a lot of trouble.  You wouldn’t operate your car without gas, oil or headlights.  In the computer world, system updates and antivirus software are just as essential.  Have fun, and stay safe.