There’s an old rule called Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.  It says “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” So, for example, if the headline is “Can chocolate cure cancer?” you can save the trouble of reading the article.  So if you want to save yourself time right now, you can answer the question “Do I Have A Virus?” with “No”, and voila! Free time!  If, however, you would like a little more detail, read on…

I’m going to eat your brains! Or your files, anyway.
(Zombies à Montréal, by Claude Robillard, CC BY 2.0)

Computer viruses have been around for longer than the internet.  The early ones were caught from floppy disks or on university networks.  They were written by malicious idiots, and they did little more than slow down computers and make them misbehave.  Over time, as computers became more connected and more important, the malicious idiots developed new types of virus, including ones that scramble all your files and demand a ransom for their safe return.  But the basic principle remains: viruses slow down your computer and make them misbehave.

It follows logically, then, that if your computer is slow and misbehaving, you might have a virus.  It’s a fair assumption!  But after many years in this job, I’ve only seen three viruses.  Here’s the story of each of them, with useful hints on how to not be the fourth.

Virus #1: The Special Offer

The first virus I saw in the wild was one of those file-scrambling types, usually called ransomware because it comes with a demand for a ransom to get your files unscrambled.  The customer was lucky in that they had hard copies of the few files that were caught, but it still meant lots of typing to reinstate all the data, and they used it as an excuse to upgrade to a new computer so I guess in a sense it was still pretty expensive.  The virus came from an email that someone had opened: an offer of a too-good-to-be-true discount on plane flights.  All it took was some careless clicking and the virus had control of the computer, whereupon it had its wicked way with the files and the result was a big expensive mess.

The lesson from that was twofold.  If the client had kept backups, they would have been able to use them and save a lot of typing.  They did have a backup system in place, but they hadn’t used it recently enough, so it was useless.  So remember that: keep backups regularly.  And second, if they had been a little more careful about this offer of free stuff, they would never have clicked, clicked and clicked again to allow it to run riot.  It took a lot of careless clicking to get from email to download to launching a program!  So that’s the other lesson: don’t click on stuff that you don’t have a reason to trust.

Virus #2: The Faker

A while later I saw what looked like another ransomware attack, but it was a fake.  This time, my client was operating without an anti-virus program, and they clicked on a website with an infected advertisement.  Up popped a message, they clicked it innocently, the computer downloaded a nasty program and they were locked out of the computer.

Something about the scary ransom demand looked a bit off, though, so I investigated and found out the truth: rather than scrambling all my client’s files, this particular virus just denied access to them, replacing the usual desktop and Start Menu with a big message box.  I overrode the message box and found the program that was causing the problem, and all the files were safe!

Then I installed an anti-virus and an ad blocker, two useful tools that nobody should be without.  The lesson is: let the computer protect you from the nasties.

Virus #3: The Real Deal

I was beginning to think ransomware was the only kind of virus anyone got any more, until another client taught me otherwise.  This was a typical situation: slow computer, misbehaving programs. Of course, I checked all the other potential causes, but the memory and disk space were OK and the internet connection was no worse than usual. But then the client mentioned that her grandson had been using the computer to download some music, so I checked what had actually been downloaded, and there it was: a dodgy “media player” that was well known for installing other even dodgier programs — including, as it happened, three nasty little viruses.

I did a thorough job of cleaning it up, made sure the anti-virus software was working, and advised my client to keep an eye on her grandson in future. I also made sure that he could only log in to a restricted account on the computer — one that could play games and look at the web but could not install any other programs.  That’s the lesson: don’t let people use your computer in “Administrator” mode.  It sounds complicated, but setting up and using separate accounts for each person is a good practice, and cheaper than calling me out to delouse the computer every time someone does something silly.

So what have we learned?

Those tales are pretty rare.  The vast majority of computer problems are caused by slow internet, insufficient memory and occasional hardware failure. Viruses, even ransomware, don’t come around all that often.  But you can turn “rare” into “never” by following the lessons: be careful, even a little paranoid; arrange things so that the computer protects you as much as possible; and make some simple changes to how you use your computer so that nasties can’t bite you.  As always, I’m available to help you work that all out.

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