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Why Bad Things Happen to Good Computers.

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What you should know about viruses, malware, IP impersonators and more.

Have you ever had a computer suddenly go bad on you? Maybe the programs just froze all the time, or maybe you could no longer go on the Internet without a lot of strange things happening? You may have thought it turned to the dark side of the Force... and in a way it may have, with the help of something called malware.

Malware—short for malicious (very bad) software—can be any type of destructive, sneaky software that can do harm to your computer or simply track your comings and goings online.

That's bad news, but now here's the unsettling part: Malware doesn't just show up, like rust on an old car. Malware gets on computers because someone out there in Internet land schemes to put it there, sometimes even with your help.

Is Your IP Address at Risk?

Your personal IP address, on its own, isn't something that most hackers are after—they'd rather find a way to harm computers or steal computer users' personal information. But there is brand of computer-foolery out there called IP spoofing, where hackers manipulate and impersonate IP addresses to trick people and get thousands of computers to send Internet traffic to a website, causing it to shut down.

If you want to see if your IP address has ever been used to spam other computer users or websites, check out our Blacklist Check tool.

Keeping Safe Online

Viruses, spyware and other malware are not alike, in the same way that robbers, burglars and con men are all different. They each have their own method of stealing from you. So, it might be a good idea to know the usual suspects by name and know just what they're out to do to you. The more you know, the better you can take care of your online connection and your private information.

Spyware

Times have changed since the spy movies of the '60s. No longer does some secret agent need to physically get access to your computer in order to monkey with it and install some program to steal secret information. Now there's spyware.

That's the name for software that finds its way on your computer and tracks information about you, discovering all your computer secrets and habits. This isn't the government; it can be advertisers or it can be people with bad intentions. Spyware can take over your computer and send you to websites you don't really want to go to, or it can accumulate a profile of you and your computer usage—and at its worst, it can uncover and obtain passwords, personal data and credit information. Yikes!

In a lot of cases, spyware gets on your computer through something you personally download, like a game or music program. It can also happen simply by your visiting a website. And you won't even know it happened until something goes wrong. (Or you may never know.)

That's why you should be always be careful with what you download.

Viruses

There's a reason it has the name it does. Like a nasty cold or flu, a computer virus has a way of spreading. The virus works initially by sneaking onto your computer and then attaching itself to a program once it's there. Then, like a bad science-fiction movie, it can work its way through your computer and to other computers on a network through a shared disc, file or document.

Here's the bad news: It's not just spreading for fun. A virus can really mess up a network of computers by deleting files, destroying data and causing the system to come crashing down. It might even attempt to disable anti-virus software to avoid being detected and deleted.

You can easily get a virus if you accidentally open an attachment that's been infected. (It might even come innocently, from a good friend who doesn't know their computer is infected!) Once it's in your computer's system, the virus may try to go after all the names found in your address book and inbox. Other viruses try to attack files on networks and Web servers.

Trojan Horse

A Trojan Horse (or simply Trojan) is program that gets onto your computer by tricking you into downloading something. If you ever hear warnings from people telling you not to open an email saying you've won a free European vacation, it's because once you do, you might have downloaded a Trojan. After that, your computer would be an open door to a lot of mischief, including hackers.

If you're very unlucky, a hacker might be able to steal your email account passwords and other personal online information, like credit card numbers. Plus, a Trojan isn't just a one-time hit: The window to your computer could stay open until you realize you've been hacked and take steps to shut it down.

The Drive-By Download

Most travelers know you need to be careful in strange cities and shouldn't cruise through parts of a city with a bad reputation, where something bad could happen. That's always been the case for surfing the web, too. There have always been plenty of warnings for Internet users to avoid suspicious or untrusted websites, where the chance of picking up something nasty on your computer lurks.

That's the idea behind malware called a drive-by download—you innocently (or naively) visit a "bad" website and something happens. Not only did you see or get what you came for, but you also simultaneously infected your computer with something nasty, like an online social disease!

Protecting Your Computer

Fortunately, computer companies and software makers are constantly developing solutions to fight off attacks against hackers and spammers. If you visit a website that offers anti-virus software (for a fee), they will actually provide a solution which will try to stop all the viruses, spyware and malware.

A good anti-spyware or anti-spam service will offer you service that can:

  • Detect and remove the bad stuff, whatever it is
  • Fix any Internet connection problems
  • Fend off incoming threats or attacks on your computer
  • Checks your computer's inner-workings to look for weak points

But be careful! There are even some hackers who'll send you an email saying your computer has been infected and you need to download new software immediately. And when you click on their link, you've just downloaded their virus or Trojan Horse.

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