Expert tips for keeping your computer virus-free and zippy in 2016

Expert tips for keeping your computer virus-free and zippy in 2016

A guide to starting off 2016 with a healthy PC

January 11th, 2016 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

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Photo by Enzo Wang

POLL: Have you ever gotten a computer virus?

Other famous viruses

SQL Slammer/Sapphire

› First appearance: 2003

› What it did: Slammer bogged down web traffic on a global scale. It affected bank ATMS, 911 dispatchers, airlines and ultimately disconnected entire countries from the Internet. Once infected, machines spewed millions of copies of the virus out randomly, leading to an infection rate that doubled every 8.5 seconds.

› Number of PCs affected: 200,000

› Damages: $750 million-$1.2 billion

Melissa Virus

› First appearance: 1999

› What it did: A virus that infected PCs after users opened a seemingly innocuous Microsoft Word document attached to an email. Once active, the virus removed safeguards in the user’s word processing application and lowered security settings. It replicated by sending copies of itself to 50 of the user’s email contacts. Occasionally, the virus would automatically insert a block of text into the user’s documents. Ultimately, Melissa’s rapid spread generated a wave of email that affected “government and private sector networks,” according to the FBI.

› Number of PCs affected: “Hundreds of thousands,” the FBI says.

› Damages: $1.1-$1.2 billion

Code Red

› First appearance: 2001

› What it did: By exploiting a vulnerability in online servers running Windows 2000 or Windows NT, Code Red automatically defaced the website hosted by the server or, in some cases, took them down entirely. Infected PCs — also known as “zombies” — also were forced to take part in a coordinated attack on specific websites, including

› Number of PCs affected: 1 million

› Damages: $2.6 billion

Conficker Worm

› First appearance: 2008

› What it did: By taking advantage of an exploit in servers running Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows 2003 that made them install unauthenticated files. Once active, Microsoft reported that Conficker disabled “important system services and security products,” downloaded arbitrary files and barred access to specific websites, including those that offer antivirus software. It spread by infecting flash drives and by moving between machines with shared network access. Networks affected included the French and British military and hospitals in the U.S. and U.K.

› Number of PCs affected: 9-15 million

› Damages: $9.1 billion


› First appearance: 2000

› What it did: ILOVEYOU appeared to be a love letter attached as a file to an email. After being opened, it downloaded automatically and began overwriting files, such as MP3s and photos. It proliferated by sending itself to the user’s email contacts.

› Number of PCs affected: 500,000

› Damages: $15 billion

Sobig/Sobig.F Worm/Trojan Horse

› First appearance: 2003

› What it did: Masquerading as a legitimate email, Sobig infected users who opened an attached file on a PC using Windows. The worm then downloaded to the computer’s system folder, modified the computer’s registry, harvested email addresses, then emailed itself to the infected user’s contacts. Sobig set records for its infection rate and the number of machines it affected.

› Number of PCs affected: 2 million

› Damages: $37.1 billion

Mydoom Worm

› First appearance: 2004

› What it did: Mydoom spread through an attachment on an email masquerading as a bounced message. Once that file was opened, the worm downloaded automatically, accessed the Outlook email contacts list and sent itself to other users. The worm also modified the user’s system registry and created a back door that allowed attackers to access the machine’s network capabilities for use in a coordinated cyber attack.

› Number of PCs affected: 2 million

› Damages: $38 billion

Source: Microsoft, Virus. Wikia, Norton, CNET, Investopedia, Sophos, BBC, HowStuffWorks, Telegraph, Scientific American, Wired,, ZDNet


Thirty years ago this month, thousands of computers around the world started to suffer a mysterious case of the sniffles. They were slowing down. Sometimes, they forgot things or became catatonic.

Brain, the world's first virus to target PCs, was to blame.

In January 1986, ZDNet reports, Pakistani brothers and programmers Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi discovered customers were pirating their software, so they developed a devious anti-copying program. If a user inserted a bootlegged floppy disk with Brain into their machine, a stealthily concealed virus would load into the memory, infecting any subsequent disks that were inserted and slowing the computer down by occupying precious blocks of memory.

Victims who peeked into the source code of this digital malady discovered the ominous message, "Welcome to the dungeon. Beware of this VIRUS," accompanied by the Alvi brothers' address and a phone number to call "for vaccination."

Although viruses had been in existence since the early '80s, Brain was one of the first to spread — albeit slowly — "in the wild" rather than being limited to the machines on self-contained university or corporate networks.

Since the emergence of the Internet and the persistent digital connections that define modern life, viruses and other malicious software now can infect systems much more quickly, in greater numbers and with more subtlety. Some of the most malicious and widespread have impacted millions of machines and caused billions of dollars in damages and lost productivity.

The cybersecurity industry has ballooned in response to this threat. In 2015, Gartner market research reported that $75 billion was spent on protecting users from and dealing with the effects of cyber attacks. By 2020, that market could reach $170 billion.

If you're interested in making sure your computer is zippy and virus-free in 2016, here are a few suggestions from Donald Sayers, the owner of Chattanooga computer repair company iFixie.

-Keep a lookout. Any changes to your computer's normal operation could indicate the presence of malicious software, from slower overall performance to a browser unexpectedly opening up to a new homepage you haven't selected.

"Anything out of the ordinary that your computer shouldn't be doing is usually a pretty good sign that you've got an infection," Sayers says. "Your computer will be slow to boot or slow to open an application or an application maybe won't open at all."

-Don't over-extend. Browser extensions are programs that operate in conjunction with a web browser to add additional functions, such as a built-in streaming radio or quicker access to search engines and social media. While not inherently malicious, extensions do take up valuable resources and, in a pack, can bog down a computer's memory and processor, leading to slower performance.

Users can see what extensions are active by checking their browser's settings, tools or preferences menu. There, they should disable or uninstall any they aren't actively using or don't remember installing, Sayers says.

-Read before you click. During installation, many digital software packages will include several windows, including voluminous end- user license agreements packed with dense legalese. According to a 2011 survey, only 7 percent of users read the full terms of these agreements, blindly scrolling down to the "agree" button to speed up the installation.

This can be detrimental to performance, Sayers says, because developers often slip additional software onto a computer by piggybacking it onto the installation of the software the user actually wanted. Once installed, these programs hog memory by running in the background after the computer boots or activating as browser extensions.

To avoid ending up with this unwanted software, Sayers recommends downloading Unchecky, an application which automatically unticks all boxes during installations, including those that default to approving the installation of additional programs. In effect, he says, Unchecky forces users to read what they're agreeing to before the process can continue.

- Viruses aren't the only threat. While globally proliferating viruses once dominated headlines, Sayers says the threat they pose is secondary now to that of other malicious software, or malware, such as aggressive adware — the source of all those unwanted advertisement pop-up windows — and ransomware, which encrypts a user's data and threatens to delete it unless a payment is made by a certain deadline.

The best defense against this type of attack, Sayers says, is to be proactive rather than reactive. He recommends using a comprehensive Internet security suite that includes an active malware scanning feature in addition to normal antivirus function.

Internet service providers generally offer customers a free license to a cybersecurity suite. Comcast Xfinity customers can download Constant Guard Internet Security powered by Norton, while AT&T U-Verse subscribers are offered a license to Internet Security Suite powered by McAfee. Sayers says the best option for locals, however, is Kaspersky Internet Security, which is offered free to EPB Fiber Optics customers.

Regardless of whether they use a free suite or a paid program such as ESET NOD32, Sayers says users should keep their security program updated and stick to their suite's automatic scanning and repair functions rather than using into advanced options such as ones that make changes to a computer's registry. Best leave that to the experts, he says.

"It's like trying to fix your car," he says. "If you don't know what you're doing, sometimes you can do more damage that costs more for someone else to repair later on."

-Don't dial. Many pop-up windows that visitors encounter online often include dire — usually baseless — warnings that the computer is infected with numerous viruses. These helpfully offer to cleanse the user's system remotely, if the owner will simply call a hotline and provide their credit card information. This kind of trap can open the door to a lot worse than a virus or a stolen password, Sayers says.

"One of the most dangerous things people can do is reach out to these people," he says. "They'll go through and mess with your computer and maybe make it worse, but then, in a couple of months, they'll sell your credit card information.

"Those types of scams are getting more and more common because it's playing on the one thing that an antivirus or malware protection software can't prevent."

But, Sayers adds, those who fall victim to the trap shouldn't let embarrassment hold them back from taking action.

"It's not a smarts thing," he says. "The worst thing you can do is be dishonest with yourself and not get your credit card number changed and that product refunded. The longer you wait with that stuff, the more chance there is that they'll get a password or bank account information or steal a credit card number."

-Back it up, speed it up. Because so much important information is stored on computers, keeping a regularly updated backup of your files is crucial, Sayers says. He recommends a two-pronged approach to archiving files. First, purchase an external hard drive that can serve as an immediate, physical double of your data in the event that the original drive is damaged, lost or stolen. Second, subscribe to an online storage service such as Backblaze, which offers unlimited cloud-based backups for Mac and PC users for $5 a month.

To see an immediate improvement to your computer's performance, Sayers recommends upgrading from hard drive-based storage system to a solid-state drive. Hard drives, the storage standard for decades, access data on metal platter that require physical movement of a read/write head. This limits the drive's speed.

Newer solid-state drives, on the other hand, store data on integrated circuits with no moving parts. While more expensive and generally offering lower capacity than a spin-up hard drive, solid-state drives are more durable and can access data more quickly, which noticeably speeds up system reboots and offers faster access to applications and files.

"A solid-state drive will offer a huge, perceivable difference," Sayers says. "It is the one thing that people can really, really see and feel as soon as they get on their machine that it's faster."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.