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Beware Malware: There's Danger Online

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When it comes to software, most of us know only that software programs—we also call them applications or computer programs—help us to do all of the important things we do on our computers. We couldn't live without our spreadsheets, writing programs and Internet browsers, because that's the software that helps us take care of business and personal matters.

But not all software is good for our computers or us. Some of it is dangerous, even malicious...designed to do our computers (and our lives) harm. That software is called malware and it's often behind a variety of bad deeds, such as:

  • Interrupting and disrupting our operations
  • Collecting and stealing personal or business information
  • Taking control of computers to send volumes of spam (or other malware)
  • Breaking into computer networks to do major damage

Nothing about malware is good and it's almost always criminal. People who use malware want to break into our bank accounts or do damage to our email or social media accounts. They're out there to cause trouble. One version might make it possible to take over someone's webcam. Another might disarm your antivirus program; or it could steal passwords, copy emails and documents, and know how to gain access to your private data online.

How do our computers get malware?

Malware—or more accurately, the individuals or organizations behind it—is constantly looking for those computer users who have their guard down just long enough to get tricked into downloading malware. Attackers can't be too obvious, so they make it tempting for us to open an email attachment, visit a webpage or download an image or file.

  • They may disguise their harmful "payload" as a link to a website, a document, image, or even a program that claims to be able make your computer more secure!
  • Even social media isn't safe. You could be targeted though a Twitter "tweet," on Skype or even through a link on your personal Facebook page.

How to avoid malware.

The best way to deal with malware is to take measures to keep your computers from becoming infected. How far you take that depends on your fear of being hacked and lack of privacy.

Some security experts say you should NEVER open a file from someone you don't know or an email message you weren't expecting to receive. That advice may be impossible for most people, but at a minimum we should think twice before we open ANY email with an attachment. (Think of it like this: Do you simply open your front door to anyone who knocks, or do you look out the peephole first?)

Keep up-to-date.

Computer operating systems (OS) are continually being refined and improved, and you'll usually know when an entire new version of the OS being rolled out. (Windows 8.1 is Microsoft's latest version.) These operating systems get updated from time to time, often with security patches that better protect your computer from recent well-known attacks.

If possible, you should try to have the current operating system for your computer, and you should be sure to look for and download any new security patches. (Just make sure you're not being tricked by a hacker!)

Looking for malware.

Of course, you should have a reliable and current antivirus program on your computer. Do your homework and read reviews because not all antivirus programs are equal. A program might be good at catching some malware, but not more sophisticated attacks. And a good program would be able to detect any malware hiding in your computer and notify you with an alert.

If you're concerned about your computer and security, you may want to upgrade your antivirus program and run a full scan of all parts of your computer.

If malware is on your computer.

Take quick action if you suspect there is malware on your computer. Stop using it and unplug it from your network and its power supply. If your computer is not accessible to you, it's inaccessible to a hacker too.

Take your computer to a trusted IT professional and ask for help. They may want to reinstall your computer's operating system and all of the software you use. They'll also give you advice on the best way to open files on your computer that may still be infected.

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