Most students aren’t protecting their PCs against viruses

By Ian Essling

Students often cite cost as one of the main reasons for not keeping their computers safe.

After all, does anyone really have this insatiable urge to shell out $90 for a security suite from Norton AntiVirus?

Thankfully, that $90 can be spent elsewhere, because you can protect and defend your computer from viruses and spyware on a very low budget – for free, in fact.

Setting up your computer to be protected is not exactly a fun job. It’s much easier to run the no-firewall, no-anti-virus route. Easier, that is, until you get infected and your computer begins to run so slowly that the Comcast Slowsky turtles pass you on the information superhighway.

Chuck Downing, NIU professor of operations management and information systems, explains that virus and spyware protection is critical for two reasons.

“First, to avoid the hassle and inconvenience of having a slow or stalled computer: Many spyware programs redirect your attention to other Web sites and advertisements and can dramatically slow or even disable your computer,” he said. “The second reason is to protect against theft, disablement and liability.”

Downing said that the second reason is actually the more serious of the two. If someone uses your computer as a “springboard” to attack another computer or network because your system was not secured properly, you will be liable for the damages caused on the other end – a concept called “downstream liability.”

The first step in defending your computer is using the proper browser. Internet Explorer, despite its 80-something percent market share, is a terrible piece of technology. Nearly every virus and piece of spyware is written with Internet Explorer and Windows in mind.

I’ve worked in the computer industry for six years. Of the scores of infected computers I’ve saved from spyware and virus attacks, the vast majority owe their infections to one of two sources: The user intentionally installed something filled with worms, i.e. Kazaa, or they used an unsecured browser (Internet Explorer) that was compromise.

Use Avant Browser (avantbrowser.com), a little-known browser that views Web pages just like Internet Explorer (so you don’t have the compatibility or plug-in problems that sometimes plague Mozilla Firefox), but it is far more secure, quicker and more stable. Avant gives you built-in tabbed browsing, an ad blocker, a pop-up blocker and many other useful security features.

Head over to grisoft.com/free and download AVG Anti-Virus, the free edition. This anti-virus is easily one of the best programs available, as it runs in the background, instantly scans everything that downloads to your computer, including Trojan horse worms that download themselves to your temporary Internet files, downloads new virus definitions in seconds each day and has a fantastic e-mail scanner.

The best testament I can give to the power of this program is the number of viruses I pulled off a single client’s computer – 45,000 – and I did this after the client’s Norton Antivirus program removed a whopping nine viruses and called the computer “clean.”

For a free firewall, there is none better than ZoneAlarm (zonealarm.com). You have to navigate the site a bit to find the free version, but it’s there and it’s good. The firewall can monitor each piece of incoming and outgoing traffic and also has an emergency stop button that can be used to instantly shut down an Internet connection if necessary.

I suggest, for most users, a two-tiered approach for spyware detection and removal: Lavasoft’s Ad Aware (lavasoft.com) and Spybot Search and Destroy (safer-networking.org). More advanced users should check out HijackThis (merijn.org/programs.php), but that program requires far more experience than the first two.

Ad Aware is an extremely simple program that will find many pesky pieces of spyware with little input from the user. You install, you run and you quarantine.

There are rarely any false positives, and the program does a stand-up job of eliminating many light threats. Spybot is slightly more difficult to use but catches a wider array of enemies. The program is quick and efficient, and while it does catch more false positives than Ad Aware, it is easy to uncheck those and move on.

Regularly running these two programs on your computer – whether you think you are infected or not – is good practice, because they can often find an infection in its infancy, when it is easy to remove without resorting to drastic measures.

Overall, Downing does not believe students protect their computers well enough.

“Most college students have simple or no anti-virus software, and use a reactive – rather than proactive – strategy of protection,” Downing said. “They go on about their business and hope that nothing will happen.”

With these free options, more students should be able to protect themselves from the swirling hordes of viruses and spyware lurking just outside their firewall.