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Internet 104: AntiVirus Protection for Your Computer (Part 4 of 5)
They can show up anywhere -- in e-mail messages, in word processing documents and macros, or in files that are downloaded from the Internet. They may lie hidden in your computer's memory for months, waiting for a certain date or for you to unknowingly activate a program they've entered. And some of them can wreak enough havoc on your PC that they make Ebola look like an electronic case of the sniffles. They are computer viruses, and unless you have a program that offers some protection, your computer is a prime target for infection.
Viruses: What Are They, How Do They Spread, and What Do They Do?
Simply speaking, a virus is a rogue program that inserts itself into a program file or boot sector and replicates itself. Viruses can be spread in a number of ways. They most commonly occur when an infected floppy disk is left in a drive and the PC is rebooted or files are transferred onto your hard drive. They can also be spread by opening an infected e-mail message, downloading a shareware program off the Internet, or reading a macro file or other word processing document. Unless you have some sort of virus protection, you can send a potentially deadly virus to dozens of people without knowing it.
Once active in your computer's memory, a virus can perform a number of negative functions, including destruction of data files, corruption of BIOS settings -- some even reformat your hard drive. For instance, if the Form.A virus makes its way onto your computer, several annoying things happen on the 18th of every month: unused hard disk sectors become damaged, certain keys beep when they are pressed, and the monitor displays a rather obscene reference to a woman named Corinne.
Currently, as many as 10,000 computer viruses have been cataloged and identified. Of those, approximately 700 are "in the wild," or known to be in circulation. The Symantec AntiVirus Research Center reports that between three and six new computer viruses are discovered every day. That's why it's important to get some type of virus protection as soon as possible.
Virus Protection: Which is Best?
There are dozens of virus protection packages available for sale. Each of them claims to offer the best protection available from viruses, but admittedly, none of them are the perfect solution. Of the programs available, there are three that stand out in terms of the ability to detect and remove viruses, price, and ease of use.
One program that comes highly recommended is Dr. Solomon's Anti- Virus Toolkit. It performs very well in terms of wild virus detection and removal, and uses a simple interface that provides every antivirus feature you need on one screen.
Among the Toolkit's more attractive features is an on-screen virus encyclopedia, which lists every known virus as well as their effects on a computer. Dr. Solomon also comes with a bootable floppy disk which lets you find and destroy a virus on any system.
In addition, the Toolkit has an option that lets you do monthly virus updates online. Trial versions of Dr. Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit are available for download at their website (www.drsolomon.com); the full version costs between $60-$70.
Another good antivirus program is Norton AntiVirus 2.0. Like the Toolkit, all of the features you need to scan and remove viruses are listed on one screen. Norton AntiVirus also lets you download virus updates online, and it has a Virus Repair Wizard that gives information on the type of virus being removed.
While it doesn't remove as many wild viruses as Dr. Solomon's program, Norton does have some other unique features. For instance, Norton comes with a scheduling program that lets the computer scan drives for viruses automatically. You can also program functions to have viruses removed automatically, or you can go through a step-by-step procedure that lets you see every action that's being taken against the virus. Norton AntiVirus costs about the same as Dr. Solomon's Toolkit; you can download a 30-day trial version at their website (www.symantec.com).
McAfee VirusScan is the least expensive of the three; the standard version of VirusScan has been seen selling for as little as $39.95. There is a slight tradeoff for the value; the other two programs can detect more wild viruses than McAfee's program. However, VirusScan is able to remove more viruses than the Toolkit or Norton AntiVirus. In addition, VirusScan is the only program of the three that's available for every major operating system (Windows 3.1, 95 and NT, DOS, or OS/2). Like the other virus detection programs listed above, McAfee also offers a trial version of VirusScan; you can download it at their website (www.mcafee.com).
Here are a few other steps you can take to stay virus-free:
* Set the write-protect tab up on floppy disks when you're not writing information to them. And don't leave floppy disks in the drive when you reboot; the most common types of viruses are those that spread from the boot sector of a floppy disk to your hard disk.
* If you receive a floppy disk from someone, make sure to check it for viruses before you download any information from the disk onto your hard drive. After you've checked the disk for viruses and downloaded the files you need, reformat the floppy disk. This will eliminate any chance of you getting a virus from that disk.
* Back up critical files and scan the hard disk daily. Some viruses cause damage that simply can't be repaired. Save the important files at the end of the day, label them, and keep them in a safe place. Another option is to use a tape storage device or zip drive, which save larger amounts of data.
* If your PC offers an option to choose the system startup drive, change the setting so that it bypasses the floppy drive and boots directly from the hard drive. This will lower the chance of your getting a boot sector virus greatly.
* If you have an antivirus program, make sure you keep it up-to-date. Outdated virus programs leave you open to new viruses. Without monthly updates, new viruses could get into your system and run wild for days or weeks before you can catch them.
* Make sure your antivirus program checks e-mail messages that you send and receive, as well as any files you download from the Internet.
If you own a computer but don't have virus protection (or if you're thinking about purchasing a computer), buying some sort of virus protection software should be at the top of your list of priorities. If you can afford it, buy more than one (need a reason why? Read the Editor's note.) Spending $50 or $100 on virus detection programs now could save you thousands of dollars in corrupted files, unusable hardware, and personal anguish later on.
In the next article, we'll describe the functions of a computer's BIOS (basic input output system) and how it can increase a computer's performance. Upcoming issues will discuss the possibility of fraud on the Internet, as well as reviews of web sites related to the movies and auto repairs.
As always, we welcome your comments. If you have any questions or suggestions about this column, or there's a web site or product you'd like us to review, please contact me.
[Editor's Note: Even Dynamic Chiropractic has not been spared the wrath of computer viruses. Although our system is protected with both Norton 2.0 and McAfee's VirusScan, recently we were unknowingly sent a file infected with the Concept virus. America Online, being the great service that it is, downloaded the file into a folder and opened it before either antivirus program had a chance to look at it. As a result, our version of Microsoft Word 97 had to be reinstalled, and the operating system's taskbar had to be reset to its original position. Thanks again, AOL.]