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Tales from the Dorkside
In Feb. 19 Issue
By Jeff Smith, Columnist

Working as a PC repair guy, it goes without saying that I see a lot of fairly messed up computers. By far the biggest problem I see is that people do not understand the fundamental difference between traditional viruses and spyware, aka malware. The two are very different, and different techniques are employed to remove them.

A traditional virus is just a snippet of code. Its just a tiny piece of instructions that latches onto the end of executable programs. This snippet of code runs when the executable that it is attatched to runs. Viruses are removed by anti-virus software that scans files for these little hijackers.

You've probably heard of Norton and McAfee, since these are the two most widely known antivirus programs. Chances are, you had one or the other of these two pre-installed on your computer when you got it, usually with a trial-version of sorts.

The downside to Norton and McAfee is their popularity makes them a big target for virus writers. If you're a virus-writer, getting around Norton and McAfee is priority one. If you can manage to do that, then you have the ability to infect millions of computers.

So while Norton and McAfee are working diligently to remove every virus they find, the virus writers are working diligently to remove your Norton and McAfee. Hence, I don't really recommend either of these two antivirus programs. Besides, there is adequate protection out there to be had for free. Norton and McAfee are notorious for just abandoning you to the wolves the moment your subscription is up, but with a free antivirus program, you don't have to wait til payday to be protected.

There are actually quite a few free antivirus programs out there. A lot of people speak highly of AVG, and I've found that AVG does an excellent job of protecting, but I've also noticed that it is so hard on system resources that people often bring their machines in to find out why it is so slow, only to find that it is AVG that is slowing everything down.

Currently, Avira has the highest marks for detection and removal, but their free version does not have a web-shield to protect you while you surf, nor an email-shield to protect your email client. My personal favorite is Avast Free Antivirus ( It does a great job of protecting your PC (currently 3rd place for detection and removal), has multiple scanning options and automatically updates itself daily. It also has web-shields, email-shields, p2p-shields and a network-shield (to keep one computer on a network from infecting others) all for the low low price of registering a name and email address once a year. In their next version they're going to be implementing a sandbox feature for safely running downloaded software in such a way as to keep it from interacting with the system until it is known to be safe.

Keep in mind, Avast is free for home use only. If you want to use it at work, you should go ahead and spring for the Pro version which provides the same great antivirus system as well as extra protections to keep you safe.

Spyware differs from viruses in that a spyware application is a full program. It isn't just a snippet of code, it is a piece of stand-alone software that runs all on its own. Spyware takes many forms and has many purposes, some of which are sinister and some which are just annoyances.

Some spyware only serves to bring you targeted popup ads, but the worst are the ones that try to strong-arm you into "purchasing" or "unlocking" a full version that claim they can protect you. If you've seen Antivirus.NET, Security TOOL, or Internet Antivirus Pro, you've seen spyware masquerading as if they are legitimate security programs.

Often these jokers will steal the Windows security logo and use it in their program in order to foster a false trust with the user. If any program ever pops up and tells you that you're infected and that you have to pay money for it to remove the bad stuff it claims to have found, then it is half right. You are, in fact, infected. But the program telling you this is the largest part of the infection.

Regardless of whether you have the annoying kind of spyware or the really nasty ones that hold your PC hostage, one thing that all spyware has in common is that it is unnecessary software that slows down your machine, and it needs to be removed pronto.

This can be accomplished with two free programs that I use on a daily basis. Spybot - Search and Destroy ( and Malwarebytes ( are two great spyware removal programs. Install them, update them and then scan with them. Remove anything that they find. Your computer will thank you for it.

But of course, the best way to be free of viruses and spyware is to never get infected in the first place. I know that many of you are in love with the big blue E, but I'm here to tell you that Internet Explorer is the biggest infection point around. Switch to an alternative browser like Firefox or Google Chrome and you'll have a lot less chance for infection.

I promise you that the Internet will still be the Internet, even if you are using a different browser. Likewise, using an alternative email client like Thunderbird instead of Outlook or Outlook Express could save you lots of headaches in the future for precisely the same reason.

Or, you could just be on the safe side and ditch Windows altogether in favor of a more secure operating system (Linux) and never have to worry about viruses or spyware ever again.

Moving to Linux can sometimes be a big change and it isn't for everyone since some people have specific Windows-only programs that they rely on for their business, but for home use, the majority of computer users would get along just fine without Windows. I know I do. Ask around, maybe some of your friends do as well.

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