Learn to recognise and to avoid online threats like viruses and ransomware. And discover simple ways to avoid and fix them before the damage is done.
Online Threats – Viruses
Viruses are bits of malicious code that hides within software, electronic files, etc., waiting to be unknowingly installed onto a PC. The aim of a virus is not always obvious, and not always the same. Some viruses are created and released by people who just want to see the world burn, those who like causing chaos and misery for their fellow man. Some are designed to create back doors into systems or steal information. In most cases, viruses are designed to do one thing: make your computer inoperable.
Viruses are well named for their ability to spread themselves through a computer system, infecting multiple files, until they are unknowingly passed on by the infected user. And once spread through a system, can be annoyingly difficult to get rid of. The infection happens once an infected piece of software or an executable file is run for the first time. Exactly what is then infected varies depending on the virus.
Our Advice: Many infections come from files attached to emails, so make sure you have antivirus software installed that can automatically scan attachments. Even with AV in place, treat any email attachment as suspicious unless from a known sender.
Free downloads from websites can also be a hiding place for viruses, so make sure you scan these too. Run a full system scan with your antivirus software (use the new Offline Scan in Windows Defender if in doubt).
Prevention Tips: Avoid running any software you have not first scanned with an antivirus program. Always be careful double-clicking executable files (files that end in .exe), and be wary of clicking on links on websites you don’t completely trust. And know the signs to look for if you might be infected: unusually slow computer, lag when opening windows, etc., strange pop-ups and error messages.
Online Threats – Malware
Malware is a fairly loose term, and can refer to any malicious software, including viruses, spyware, worms, trojans, ransomware, etc. Any good antivirus software will be looking for malware in all its forms. The term “Malware” is used interchangeably with “Virus” in many cases, but as long as your PC security software mentions it, you should be fairly well protected.
Our Advice: See advice for viruses above.
Prevention Tips: As always, good antivirus/anti-malware software installed should be your first defence. Make sure system restore points are enabled on a Windows PC (see the “Ransomware” section below for more details), and avoid opening suspicious links, attachments and files. Run a full system scan with your antivirus software (use the new Offline Scan in Windows Defender if in doubt).
Online Threats – Ransomware
Ransomware is a form of malicious software which is designed to lock access to files (or even to the whole computer) and threaten the victim into paying money for unlocking them. The infected user will often see just a single window on screen, informing them of the ransomware attack and demanding payment. Any attempt to close the window in the normal way will fail, and they will be prevented from performing almost all normal functions on their computer.
This can be extremely scary for a inexperienced computer user, especially if there is sensitive material on the device, or if it is used for running a business. Ransomware attacks appear to be increasing, as many people will believe they must give in and pay to prevent embarrassment or the loss of years of work.
Our advice: Never pay! It is very likely that even if you do pay, your files will remain locked. Also, it is believed that those who do pay can have their details added to lists which are sold to other scammers as “good targets”.
Stop, take a breath, do a bit of research and you should see that Ransomware is actually one of the easier online threats to remove and fix. For a step-by-step guide to restoring a PC infected with Ransomware, read our guide here.
Prevention Tips: Aside from having a good antivirus program protecting your PC from being infected in the first place, Restore Points are one of the keys to surviving a Ransomware attack. By default, Windows 10 has system restore switched on, which allows you to roll back your computer to an earlier point (before the infection occurred).
If you want to check, or manually create a restore point, search for “Restore Point” on your PC and click “Create a restore point” in the results. You should be able to see if your main system drive is protected.
It is a good idea, if your computer and its files are in any way important or irreplaceable to you, to assume that you will hit with a ransomware attack. Don’t think “If”, think “When”. Back up regularly to an external hard drive or a cloud-based storage system (such as Dropbox or Google Drive).
You can pick up a 500GB external drive for as little as £30/$40 these days, but even a cheap 32GB flash drive might be enough to back up your essential files.
Online Threats – Scareware
Scareware is similar to Ransomware in its approach, but demands money in a less direct way. Scareware usually appears in the form of a pop-up telling you that your computer is infected with a virus or some other sort of malware. Often this is in the form of fake system scan with multiple angry red results, exclamation marks, flashing warning symbols. This is all carefully designed to scare you into clicking the “Clean Now” (or similar) button. When you do so, you will be told that you need to pay for the full version of the cleaner software.
Our Advice: If the software presenting scan results is not something you installed, or if the warning appears in the web browser, it is very probably Scareware and should be ignored. If you are worried, update and run a scan in your preferred antivirus software.
Prevention Tips: It isn’t always possible to avoid seeing scareware, but you can certainly reduce your chances of coming across it. Choose, install (and keep up-to-date) a reputable antivirus program.
Avira, Avast, AVG and Panda Security all offer good, free virus protection. Also be wary when installing other software, as even seemingly safe software can sometimes ask to install third-party toolbars and other programs. If you are not paying attention, you can easily add dodgy software yourself.
Online Threats – Adware
Adware is generally less of a threat than viruses, ransomware or scareware, but you should still try to keep your PC free from it. Adware is usually bundled up with other software or apps, and is designed to sell you things or point you in the direction of a website, etc. It is more annoying than malicious, but because adware forces itself to the foreground, it can use up system resources that you might need to do the things you actually want to do on your computer. Add two, three, four bits of adware, all doing the same resource-hungry things, and you can see the potential problems.
Our Advice: If you start seeing adverts popping up or notice a new toolbar at the top of your browser, or indeed anything you are not expecting to see, have a look at your installed programs. Open Settings > Apps > Apps & Features, and go through the list. If you see something you don’t recognise as being installed by you, do a quick Google search on it to see if it is known Adware. If it is, you can just uninstall it.
Prevention Tips: Adware, as we have already mentioned, is often bundled up with legitimate software you are installing. In most cases, during the installation process you will be asked to “uncheck the box if you don’t want…” or “Do you want to install so and so for free?”. Just uncheck/don’t check the box (whichever is relevant). The key is to make sure you read each screen of the installation process when adding software.