What is a virus?

A computer virus is a fragmented or piece of executable code that can copy or replicate itself, thereby spreading itself from file to file and computer to computer. It acts much like biological viruses in humans that get passed due to proximity and/or contact which is where the name virus comes from.

Where do viruses come from?

It used to be that you needed to know computer programming to create a virus. These days there are many more people that know more about computers and with tools available on the Internet, even with minimal programming knowledge it is not hard to create your own virus. They come from confused individuals that want to harm people they don't know and even people they do know because viruses are not selective.

What do the creators of viruses get from it, does it pay?

They get to hide the fact that they created something that harms others for their entire life. They get the shame and guilt that comes with knowing in their hearts they have hurt and not helped the world. Other than that, nothing. It pays no dividends, does not further careers, gains no favors, adds no value.

How bad is it?

There are over 70,000 known computer viruses in the wild today and new viruses being created every day. This is the key reason why it is so important to get an anti-virus solution and keep it updated.

Aren't all viruses pretty much the same?

The only similarities are that they replicate and cause denial of service on some level. Newer viruses are becoming more stealthy because they are polymorphic. This means they can infect a file and change key elements in their signatures or patterns to cover up there tracks. Discovering and stopping these viruses is now even more difficult. The new viruses are getting smarter and harder to stop because people are building on the knowledge gained from past viruses. The evil men do lives long after they are gone.

How can we stop viruses?

That is a big task but it can be compared to polio. If everyone gets the medicine (anti-virus solutions) and keeps them up to date, (like a flu shot) then life for viruses would get very difficult very quickly. It is very important to get the meds and keep taking them until the viruses are gone.

Why do most viruses seem to affect Windows users?

Most personal computers rely on the Windows operating system. Therefore, a virus written to attack that operating system is more likely to create havoc then one written to attack Linux or Apple operating systems.

I keep reading about the viruses that affect Microsoft Outlook, Word, or Excel. Should I change programs?

Again, most creators write viruses to exploit these programs because the programs are popular, not because they are better or worse than other available software. Rather then changing applications, your best bet for protection is to be sure that you are alert to updates for your software. Almost all software manufacturers have lists of updates, fixes, and security patches available for download from their Web sites. Furthermore, the vast majority of antivirus programs will automatically update their definition files, making it unnecessary for you to manually locate them.

I just received an email warning me of a virus. What should I do?

Email virus hoaxes can be almost as virulent as actual viruses. A particularly persuasive hoax will have people propagating the email rapidly, increasing traffic on mail servers, and, in some cases, requiring companies to shut down their mail servers to avoid a crash. Before you hit that "Forward" button, check out Symantec's Hoaxes web page to get the full scoop.

I suspect I have a virus. What do I do?

Many antivirus programs — including Symantec Norton Antivirus and McAfee VirusScan — have an autoprotect feature that will protect your computer in real time. In such cases, the antivirus program will automatically quarantine anything it suspects to be a virus. That said, if your antivirus software doesn't offer an autoprotect feature and you suspect you have a virus, the first thing you should do is run a virus scan using your antivirus software. If you have no viruses, follow the directions to update your virus definition files and run a second scan. Still no viruses? You're probably in the clear. Go ahead and back up important files and reboot. If there were no problems, chances are you're safe. It's tempting — if you think you have a virus — to immediately back up all of your files onto a server, disc, or other media for safekeeping. The problem? If you don't know what virus you have, you may be backing up and transferring it as well. Viruses are one of the many reasons you should have a comprehensive data backup plan to minimize data loss in the event something very, very bad happens to your computer.

I have a virus. Is it all over for my poor little computer?

Open your virus software book and follow the instructions for a clean boot. This will get you on the road to recovery. If you are unable to follow or complete the instructions, call your IT contractor to help you. If you do not have an IT contractor, check out our list of technical assistance providers on our Raksha to find one near you. Most viruses are annoying and time-consuming, and they may cause some data loss, but they won't necessarily destroy your system.

How do I avoid data loss in the event that a very, very, very bad virus hits my organization's computers?

The same way you avoid data loss in general. Backup, backup, backup. Protect yourself by regularly backing up all your systems. That way, if you do lose data, you won't lose it all. For in-depth advice about how to back up data, Backing Up Your Data.

How can I keep informed about viruses? Are there good e-newsletters?

The best way to keep on top of virus threats is to be vigilant about updating your software with bug fixes and security patches and regularly updating your virus definition files. However, if you want more information on the most current threats, you might try resources such as CNET's Security Center, McAfee's Recent Threats page, and TrendMicro's Top 10 Security Threats page. I'm on a network system with broadband, always on Internet access. Do I have to worry more about viruses? Nope. You have to worry more about hackers. Viruses are malicious programs that cause varying degrees of damage to a computer and are generally spread by the users or by the programs themselves. If you have an always-on Internet connection, you have to worry about protecting your system from intrusions.

Will this virus protection stuff mess with any of my existing software?

Software conflicts — two different products that will not peacefully coexist on your machine — are a part of the computing age, and there is no way to determine if a potential conflict can be avoided before installing software. However, there are some known problems: Installing another virus protection program. Two antivirus programs are not better than one. In fact, two may be worse and may not work at all. You'll have to remove any other virus protection programs before installing your new software. Problems with older systems. On older systems, you may wish to disable all autoprotect features, especially those that run any time the computer is rebooted or those that scan all email attachments. Be sure the program will work on your system before enabling those features. Remember, though, if you've turned off the autoprotect features, you must be vigilant about running regular scans and checking email attachments. System slowdowns. Virus protection software can sometimes slow your system to a crawl. This is particularly true for older machines that may have limited memory or other resources that can cause them to spend a good chunk of time scanning files. The solution? Turn off the autoprotect features and scan manually.

Where do I get information on more specific issues?

Visit your antivirus software vendor's Web site; it likely contains a knowledge base, articles, or discussion forums that can help you solve product-specific problems.

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