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This chapter is from the book

All Dressed Up, with Nowhere to Go

Many people access their computers every day, oblivious to the threat of virus infection. As troublesome as that is, it's worse when people are aware of the risk and take action to protect themselves, but leave themselves vulnerable due to simple configuration problems. This section is about using virus protection software and emphasizes that the software is only as effective as you let it be. You can actually do more harm than good by installing virus protection and not configuring it properly. Installing virus protection software can leave you with a sense of security that lowers your guard in dealing with suspicious files. If this is a false sense of security because of a misconfiguration, you might be at more risk than if you hadn't installed virus protection at all.

Case Study 3-4

Greg was stewing again. As usual, Andrew was the source of his frustration. Even though Greg had been working at the company about 6 months longer than Andrew, it seemed as though Andrew got all the breaks. Today the frustration was Andrew's computer.

Andrew had just received a brand-new, blazing fast computer. Greg's computer was fine yesterday, but now it paled in comparison to Andrew's finely tuned machine. Everyone who passed by Greg's cube could tell he was upset. Even if you didn't hear the low murmur of Greg's grumbling, it was hard to miss the force with which Greg was hitting his keyboard.

To add insult to injury, the boss wanted their latest changes to the software compiled by 11:00. Greg was sure that Andrew's computer had already finished, and he was probably off for an early lunch. Greg's eyes fell on the icon for the virus protection software. He quickly clicked on the icon and turned off the virus checks it was conducting. His computer cranked on with the compile, and Greg hoped that shutting off the virus protection would give him enough of a speed boost to catch Andrew. After all, he'd just turn it back on later when the compile was done.

Case Study 3-5

Pam bought her computer about a year ago. Even though she had been nervous about computers, things had gone pretty smoothly for her—that is, until the past month. All of a sudden, she had been having all sorts of strange problems. Programs that used to work perfectly fine would complain about missing or corrupt files.

Finally, Pam decided to take her computer into a local repair shop. Later that afternoon, the repair shop called and informed her that her computer was infected with a virus. She explained to the technician that when she bought the computer, the salesman had specifically sold her a virus protection package to keep this from happening.

The technician explained that although the virus protection software was installed and running, it had never been updated. Now Pam would have to pay the repair shop to fix the problem and determine the extent of the damage.

Case Study 3-6

Joanne was having problems with her mail-order computer system. She couldn't point to any particular cause; it just seemed a lot slower than when she first got it. She called the support line to see whether someone could help her.

After hearing her complaint about the computer's slowness, the technician asked Joanne if she ran any virus protection software. Kathleen said she did not.

The technician told her that it sounded like her computer was infected with a virus. She would need to get her setup CD that came with the computer and reset the computer to its original condition.

The technician walked Joanne through the process. At first, everything seemed fine. Joanne reinstalled her software and started using the computer again. The next day, she realized she had a bigger problem. In her haste to get rid of the virus, she had neglected to back up some important documents. On top of it, the computer still seemed slow. Joanne wondered if maybe her computer was infected with a worm instead of a virus.

How the Attack Works

Even when you have all the tools you need, sometimes you can be your own worst enemy. No tool works effectively if you turn it off or misconfigure it. To effectively deal with viruses and Trojan horses, you not only need to make sure your system is well protected, but also keep up on maintenance to ensure it stays that way.

First, make sure your virus protection software is installed and running. If you don't have virus protection software installed, please set this book down, go pick up a copy now, and install it. Now that you're back and have virus protection software installed, please make sure it's running. Recently, when I was driving through Pennsylvania, I went through several long tunnels and had to turn on my headlights. As I exited the tunnel, I noticed a sign reminding me to check and see whether my headlights were still on. Some people could benefit from a similar sign popping up periodically to ask whether the virus protection software is still running.

Many people install the software and leave it running, but people might turn off their virus protection for various reasons. During software installation, many products recommend disabling virus protection software. A call to a technical support technician might result in temporarily shutting down virus protection to diagnose a problem. As with Greg, this temporary shutdown might be done to get a little more performance out of the machine. Whatever the reason, turning off virus protection can expose a dangerous vulnerability; however, this vulnerability is simple to fix if it's caught before it can be exploited.

An even more common occurrence is to install virus protection software and have it running, but not keep it up to date. Many people are used to upgrading software annually. However, the idea of updating software weekly or monthly often seems foreign. Although most virus protection software can be configured to update automatically, when users don't realize automatic updating is important, it becomes an easily missed step.

When a virus is released, variants—slight variations of the original virus—are usually produced immediately. Often, these variants perform the same actions as the virus; they're just packaged differently. Even if your system is protected against the original virus, if you don't keep the software up to date, the variants can do the same damage.

With huge numbers of viruses and their variants being produced, keeping up with the latest updates to virus protection software is critical. If you keep up with this task regularly, it's easy to do. The longer you go without updating your virus protection, the longer it takes to get the latest information and the higher the risk of your system being compromised.

With all this talk about what viruses can do, there's a people-related risk that can cause more damage than a virus. This risk, which happens in two major forms, is damaging a system to protect against a nonexistent virus.

The first form is a series of hoaxes that have been passed through email for years. A typical hoax email describes a newly discovered virus that's ravaging people's computers and explains how to find out if you have the virus. Usually, you're instructed to look for a file that the virus has stored on your computer and find out, to your horror, that the file does exist on your computer. The email then explains how to remove the virus, which often includes deleting the file in question. The problem is that the file isn't a virus; often it's an operating system file that's needed for the computer to operate properly.

The second form is "computer experts" who are taking the path of least resistance. This is what happened to Joanne. Instead of the technician tracking down the real source of the problem, it was easier to create fear about a mysterious virus that may or may not exist. Reformatting the computer and reinstalling programs from the original CDs will clear up any software problems, whether or not they're virus related. However, this method carries a high potential for data loss, and the resulting damage could be substantially more extensive than what a virus would have caused.

An Ounce of Prevention

For virus protection to do its job and inform you of hostile code, it must be running. Don't turn off or disable your virus protection software unless it's absolutely necessary. Most of the time, virus protection should be left running and checking for hostile code.

The most notable exception is when you're installing new software applications. Many installers recommend turning off virus protection so that it doesn't interfere with the installation process. If you're installing software you've downloaded from the Internet or received from a family member or friend, I strongly recommend scanning it for viruses before installation. Then if you need to disable virus protection during installation, you reduce your risk during that time. The key is to make sure you re-enable the virus protection after the installation is completed. Don't allow yourself to become distracted by other activities, especially checking email or browsing the Internet.

After you have ensured that your virus protection is running and will remain enabled, you need to make sure it's up to date. Updating falls into two distinct areas. First, make sure you're using a current version of the software. This part of the equation is no different from upgrading any other software, such as your word processor or golf game. Keeping your virus protection software upgraded enables you to make use of the latest tools to combat hostile code.

The second area is unique to tools such as virus protection. You need to keep the software itself updated. Virus protection software contains a database of all known virus signatures. These signatures are identifiers that the virus protection software uses to compare to the files on your computer to see whether any of them match known viruses. Think of it as a fingerprint search that you might see on CSI or other forensic television shows. The virus protection checks to see whether there's a match with the signatures in its database to determine if your computer is infected. When you update your software, you're refreshing that database to ensure that you have the latest signatures for catching the newest viruses or variants.

The update process can be completely automated and configured to run behind the scenes and keep signatures updated on a regular basis. By using this process, you can ensure that your virus protection software is up to date without expending a great deal of time or energy making sure it's been done.

Above all, don't use email messages as your knowledge base for dealing with virus attacks. Virus protection companies don't send emails with updates or steps for removing virus-infected files. Go to the virus protection software's Web site and use the resources there. You'll find ample information on how to deal with viruses and virus-related issues and news of many of the virus hoaxes that prevail on the Internet. Going directly to a Web site is a much better technique than following the steps outlined in an email forwarded by a friend or a friend of a friend.

A Pound of Cure

If you have been infected with a virus because of disabled or obsolete virus protection software, follow the same steps for dealing with the problem that you would use if you had no virus protection software at all. The same steps for booting your computer, running the software, and obtaining updates discussed in the previous section still apply.

The important thing is not to overreact and cause new problems when you're already in the middle of one. Rely on the virus protection Web site rather than an email message for information. Follow a methodical process for checking your computer and disks, and you can deal with the issue upfront, remove the virus threat, and move on.


  • Avoid turning off your virus protection software.

  • When it's necessary to disable virus protection—for example, when installing software—make sure it's turned back on after the installation.

  • Use the automatic update feature to keep your signatures current.

  • Never rely on email messages as your source of virus news.

  • Gather information before overreacting, even if you think you've already done something wrong.

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