When is a Computer Virus not a Virus?

When is a Computer Virus not a Virus?

Originally Posted at www.triella.com in October 2014

This article attempts to explain the Different Characteristics between what a Computer Virus is verses other terms such as Malware, Spyware, Adware, and more.

A computer virus, by definition, is a self-replicating software program that installs itself without the computer user’s knowledge or authorization. Computer viruses can spread through computer programs, data files, hard drive boot sectors, macros and other vectors. Not only can they spread across the file system within a local computer but they can also transport themselves over local networks to infect other computers – and they can spread through emails to infect computers worldwide.

Viruses can be programed to do be anything from being annoying to being very harmful to your computer operating system and its data. They can be programed to slow down your computer, and make it unusable, corrupt your data, steal private information, record keystrokes, generate spam email to your contacts, pop up misleading or fake error messages – well, it really is up to the imagination of the programmer. Viruses can be very sophisticated and difficult to detect. Some are impossible to clean from a computer. Some are able to morph themselves into random encrypted hidden files and elude scanners from detecting their known patterns as they move around trying to stay one step ahead of detection.

It’s important to understand that a virus is a computer program and like all computer programs it must be written in software code that is compatible with the operating system that it is intended to infect. Meaning, a virus written to infect Microsoft Windows, is extremely unlikely to be compatible with the Apple OS X or other Linux operating system variants. This is why you often hear Apple loyalist claim their systems don’t get viruses. Technically, any system can get a virus if the virus is coded to target that system. Unfortunately, popularity and a massive user base are too enticing for virus programmers to ignore. This is why most viruses target Windows – it is the most widely used operating system.

No antivirus software is perfect and with new viruses emerging every day, it’s impossible for protection software to catch everything. Virus Database updates are typically released after a virus is discovered and the antivirus software is updated to detect it. Not all antivirus software is created equally either, one may be better at detecting and cleaning certain viruses than another. In some circumstances, it may be too late for antivirus software to protect your system once the damage has been inflicted by the virus. Under these circumstances an experienced computer support technician may be required to manually remove the virus. If that fails it may mean restoring the system from a backup. If there is no backup then a full system re-installation may be the only option.

While having regular backups is critical, it is also important to know that viruses can be backed up as well, meaning you could be restoring a virus from what you think is a good backup.

Now that we have explored what a virus is, let’s explorer some related terms that are not viruses but tend to be confused with them. Malware, Spyware, Adware, and Worms are often confused for viruses, because in some cases they can be made to act like viruses.

Malware is a term used to describe Malicious Software, meaning any software that has been written with malicious intent, such as causing damage to data, or stealing personal information. Viruses can certainly be Malware, but not all Malware is a virus.

Spyware is software written with the intent to gather private and personal information from a computer without the consent of the user. Spyware can come in the form of System Monitoring software, Trojan Software, Adware, and/or Internet Cookies used for Tracking. Spyware can be malicious and it can also be used to track user’s patterns and locations in order to pop up localized advertising. Spyware can also contain viruses.

Adware is a term used for Advertising Software. This software is used to push pop up advertising to devices such as computers, tablets, and smartphones. Adware can also contain Malware. Fake Advertising can be installed onto a device without consent with the purpose of fooling the viewer paying for something they don’t need or even stealing credit card information. Some have been known to falsely suggest that the computer is infected with a virus and in order to protect your system and clean it, that the user needs to purchase the advertised software, when actually there is no virus on the computer at all.

A computer worm is software written with the primary intent of replicating itself over a network. Replication is a characteristic of a virus, with the exception that worms do not usually attempt to change or cause direct damage to the systems they pass through. They can bog down network traffic and can act as transport carriers for other malicious software such as viruses or even contribute to massive spamming. They have the potential to bring down entire networks.

Each of these potential Malware threats can also be bundled together into a single package, meaning the there is a risk of being exposed to all of them at once, but this usually a rare occurrence.

Here are some tips on how to protect against these threats:

1) Use an antivirus software package that is a complete solution and that has an annual subscription. Free software has the value you paid for it.

2) Keep all of your software updated. Where possible turn on automatic updates to ensure you are protected as quickly as possible.

3) Renew your annual software subscriptions early, so that you are not left vulnerable because your protection has lapsed.

4) Stay alert! Don’t be fooled by Fake Ads, Emails and Web links. Watch for social engineering techniques designed to get you to click on a link which will take you to an infected site. One trick is to try those links on your mobile device first to see what it is as your mobile device usually does not run Windows and will not be susceptible.

5) Use either a hardware or a software firewall. Some Malware will exploit your network ports and other such means to infiltrate your network and your computer.

6) Use WPA2 encryption with a strong password on your Wi-Fi.

Paul Comtois is a Client Support Specialist at Triella, a technology consulting company specializing in providing technology audits, planning advice, project management and other CIO-related services to small and medium sized firms. Paul can be reached at 647.426.1004. For additional articles, go to www.triella.com/publications. Triella is a VMware Professional Partner, Microsoft Certified Partner, Citrix Solution Advisor – Silver, Dell Preferred Partner, Authorized Worldox Reseller and a Kaspersky Reseller.

© 2014 by Triella Corp. All rights reserved. Reproduction with credit is permitted.

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