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Is Your Store Safe from Viruses?


7/1/2003
By Mark North

 

Just a simple chain email can leave your store wide open to viruses and spam.

Viruses are, unfortunately, a fact of life for anyone with a computer. Protecting your business computers from these viruses is now a necessity.

Lets start by examining what a virus really is and what you can do to protect your computer.

The word "virus" is typically used in a generic fashion to describe anything that infects a computer, whether spread via e-mail or downloaded from a website. For the purists however, a true virus falls into the "self-replicating" category and is a piece of code that infects or attaches itself to another file (such as a Windows operating system file).

Similar to viruses are worms. Worms are also self-replicating, but are able to stand by themselves while replicating and dont need to attach to another file. Worms often have their own built-in e-mail capabilities and can send copies of themselves without using your e-mail client.

Next are the Trojan horses, which cant replicate themselves, but must be downloaded or e-mailed by someone. Trojans are programs that masquerade as harmless applications or games or utilities while wreaking havoc on your system. Keep this in mind the next time someone e-mails you something that claims to be able to improve your computers performance or is supposed to "do something really cool" when you double-click it.

Protecting My Computer
Let me start by saying that the real focus should be on how to protect your data because in protecting your data, youll also be protecting your computer. After all, a virus can toast your operating system, yet only an hour or two with the manufacturers recovery CDs will have you up and running again. But what about all of those word processing documents, spreadsheets and financial records? These are what you stand to lose if your computer becomes infected.

To protect these files, you should make frequent backups onto removable media such as CD-RW or Zip disks. Most newer computers now come with CD-RW drives or Zip drives that are capable of storing backups of your most-prized files. Floppy drives will work for some people with few and small files, but their storage limitations will likely render them useless in the future. Software is available to make backing up files less painful, but is not necessary if you keep your files neatly organized.

Antivirus Software
Maintaining backups however, is only part of the strategy. Running a good antivirus program is absolutely essential these days. If you have Internet access and you swap e-mail with anybody, you will encounter a virus. In my experience, this is not just likely it is inevitable.

Good antivirus software will not only scan all of your e-mails for viruses, but will also log onto the manufacturers website at regular intervals to download antivirus updates. It will perform occasional system scans to ensure that nothing has slipped past between updates.

There are many such antivirus programs available, but make sure that you understand their basic operation and can verify that they are working. You should feel comfortable enough with your antivirus software to know how to check up on it from time to time.

What about those free online scans? I would avoid those for two reasons: First, theyre not capable of watching your computer at all times. Secondly, theres no such thing as a free lunch even on the Internet. You run the risk of loading "spyware" onto your computer when you open it up for such scans. (Spyware is another topic entirely, but can be described simply as software that is installed onto your computer often without your consent or knowledge for the purpose of monitoring your surfing activities.

Good antivirus software will allow you to enjoy the Internet without risking viral catastrophe.

Most antivirus software will give you a years worth of free updates. Beyond that, youll have to pay for annual renewals. The cost for these renewals is modest typically less than $20. Renewals are easy to do and you really cant opt out; otherwise, your protection will be compromised.

Heres some other things to keep in mind:
Treat e-mail attachments with caution, especially if theyre from somebody you dont know. If you do know the sender, save the attachment to a safe place on your computer and run a manual antivirus scan against it. If you dont know the sender, you should probably just delete the e-mail. Additionally, and this isnt a hard-and-fast rule, many virus-laden e-mails have very poor grammar and/or misspellings in the body of the message or in the subject line. Watch for those!

  • Attachment file extensions are often indicative of an virus. If the attachment comes with a file extension such as .EXE, .BAT, .COM or .PIF, beware! These are executable files. Although executable files are not inherently harmful, you should be cautious when dealing with them in e-mail. Even more dangerous are .VBS files just delete them!
 
  • If somebody gives you a floppy disk, CD or Zip disk, make sure to run a manual antivirus scan on it before opening any of its contents. The same goes for any files that somebody may send you through any of the various online file transfer services or chat engines (e.g. ICQ; IRC; AOL Instant Messenger; etc.)
 
  • New viruses are discovered almost daily. There is always a small risk of infection before a new antivirus update becomes available. Although this period is brief, its still possible to become infected by a very new and very fast-moving virus (e.g. the "I Love You" virus). The larger antivirus software manufacturers websites will often have downloadable tools for removing such infections, if necessary.
 

Virus infection can be prevented through simple measures. Armed with basic knowledge of what viruses are and how they operate, you can easily avoid dangerous practices (like sending chain e-mail and opening attachments from strangers). Through proper use and maintenance of a good antivirus program, your risk of infection is even lower.

If you find yourself infected, dont panic! Your antivirus software manufacturer is probably on the case already and will quickly provide you with an antivirus update and removal tool.

Knowing how to protect yourself from viruses is key to safely using the Internet and e-mail. If all else fails, youll have those current Zip or CD-RW backups of your valuable files to save the day.













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