How did I get a virus?

This is probably the most common question I have heard throughout my career helping people fix their computers. The question is not so much “what did I do?” but more “what didn’t I do?” Many people install their antivirus software and expect that to protect them.

Well, the bad news is, there is no such thing as 100% secure. If you turn on your computer, you take a risk. The good news is that you can minimize that risk.

If you’re asking the question, you’ve probably already taken one of the most important steps, which is to install antivirus. But, just installing it isn’t enough. Antivirus is most effective if it knows what to protect you against. With new infections being released every day, it is vital that your antivirus be kept up to date.  Most antivirus programs update automatically and will indicate when it has failed to update, but it wouldn’t hurt to check the date on your virus definitions which can usually be found immediately upon opening your antivirus.

In addition to keeping your antivirus up to date, it’s important that you approach the internet with caution. Malware writers have the upper hand because someone has to get infected and submit it before the antivirus companies know it’s out there.

So, what does it mean to be cautious online? Here are a few tips.

– Don’t open unexpected email attachments no matter who they come from. This is an old one, but it’s still effective because it works. Malware writers know that if you trust the sender, you let down your guard, so they will either send you the infection from someone’s account that has you in their address book (think friends/co-workers/family members) or from a trusted institution like your bank, post office, etc.
– If something has value, expect to pay for it one way or another.  There are certainly exceptions, (Microsoft Security Essentials comes to mind) but you should always ask yourself “what’s in it for them?” Commercially developed software, movies, and music are rarely going to be offered for free.  If you’re downloading free software, make sure it’s coming from a trusted source such as the manufacturer’s website, or a developer community like Sourceforge.  Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file sharing is not only most often illegal, but a great way to get a virus.
– Even when downloading from a trusted source, it’s a good idea to scan the download before installing any downloaded software. If you right click the file, most antivirus programs give you a scan option in that menu.

A complete list of possible ways to get an infection would be enough to fill a book, but these common sources of infection and preventing infection should help.

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