Be careful about downloads¶
Some of the most common ways viruses get on computers are via web surfing and downloaded programs. In this section we will look at some of these infection mechanisms and how you can protect yourself from them.
Note that the advice in this section builds upon previous sections. Using out of date software or using administrator accounts for daily tasks makes it easier for bad downloads to infect your computer with viruses. Make sure you have implemented the steps in the previous sections first.
There are a lot of sketchy, misleading software sites on the Internet. Some of them are outright scams: the software they offer comes preloaded with viruses and other malware. Other sites make money by posting misleading advertisements intended to make you download stuff you really don’t want on your computer.
Even legitimate software companies such as Oracle (which makes Java) and Adobe (which makes Flash player) bundle questionable programs with their plugins.
In this section we will cover some good practices for avoiding these nasties.
Use Ninite for common downloads¶
One of the best resources for installing clean software is Ninite. In the section Non-Microsoft updates with Ninite we discussed re-running Ninite installers to keep your existing software up to date, but you can also use Ninite to install new software. Ninite does not include every piece of software you might ever want to download, but it does include a selection of the most popular programs and plugins. It also promises to keep its downloads clean of toolbars and other unwanted bundles (and in our experience they have kept this promise so far).
To install new software go to http://ninite.com. Scroll down to see the list of programs:
Select the set of programs you would like to install. If you already have a Ninite installer, you can choose your new programs and also the ones from your own installer, or you can just select new programs.
When you have chosen the programs you want, click “Get Installer”.
The installer should download to your computer.
Save this installer in a place where you can find it again. You can use it to keep your software up to date. An easy way to find the installer is to open the download location:
Finally, right-click the installer and choose “Run as Administrator” to install your programs.
You will be prompted for an administrator password, and then you will see the program downloading and installing files:
Click the “Show details” link to get more information about Ninite’s progress:
Not every program offered by Ninite is perfect, but it is our first choice for recommended downloads (which is why we chose to recommend MozyHome as our remote backup program).
To update your programs, simply run the installer as administrator again. You do not need to go back to the Ninite homepage to re-download an installer.
Install an ad blocker¶
Many viruses get on your computer when you click the wrong window on your screen, or click a misleading advertisement that downloads unwanted software to your computer. For this section, we’ll use the example of downloading a software program from a popular download site. This site contains many misleading advertisements intended to trick you into downloading things you do not want.
If you use an ad-blocking plugin for your web browser, many of these malicious advertisements will not show up, making your web surfing. We will demonstrate how to install the ad blocker AdBlockPlus for Firefox.
To start, run Firefox and navigate to Ad-Ons:
In the search bar, type “AdBlock Plus”
Choose the AdBlock Plus plugin and choose to install it. Be careful that you choose the right product: as you can see there are many different adblock plugins. Some of them are okay, but others might be malicious.
Once you have chosen to install the plugin, Firefox should then indicate that the plugin is installed.
Ironically, the Adblock Plus website will then pop up in a browser window:
Now when you navigate to websites in Firefox, AdBlock Plus will block obnoxious ads.
However, it will not block all advertisements. By default, it will continue to display “non-obtrusive” ads:
This brings up an important ethical issue. Using an ad blocker is a good practice to avoid scary popups and inadvertent downloads. However, many internet sites earn revenue by displaying advertisements, and when you use an ad blocker you deprive those websites of their revenue stream. That means those websites could go out of business, in turn depriving you of future content.
Thus, it might be advisable to allow websites that you like and trust to display advertisements to you. To do this, you “whitelist” the website. To do this, first navigate to the website.
Choose the AdBlock Plus icon in the corner, and select “disable” for this website:
Then the website will be able to display advertisements to you.
If you allow ads on trustworthy websites you enjoy, then it is less likely that those websites will go out of business.
Unfortunately ethical issues around ad-blocking get even more complicated. Most advertisements on the Internet track where you go and what you do while you are sufring the internet. Some people are okay with this. Other people feel it is intrusive, and so use ad blockers to block as many ads as they can.
In addition, there is no guarantee that the ad-blocking software itself is trustworthy! There are no easy answers to this quandry. You will have to decide what ethical tradeoffs are right for you.
Be careful about email attachments¶
Another common way viruses get on computers is by people opening malicious email attachments. Email providers are getting better about screening out such attachments, but they are not perfect, and some virus-laden attachments still get through.
Here are some rules of thumb to follow:
If you are not expecting an attachment, then do not open it.
You should almost never open attachments that have two filename extensions, such as .zip.exe . Such attachments are named to confuse you, and very often contain viruses.
Even if you get an email from a friend or relative you might be in trouble. Be particularly wary if the email has strange wording or does not sound as if it came from the recipient in question, or if the email is asking you for money. In such situations the email account of your friend or relative may have been hacked, and is sending out virus-laden emails to everybody in their contact list. Here is a recent example:
Subject: Unhappy Predicament......................(Victim Name)
Sorry to bother you with this, I took a urgent visit to Ukraine to see my sick cousin who is suffering from a critical Uterine fibroid and must undergo a hysterectomy surgery to save her life. The news of her illness arrived to me as an emergency, she’s going through a lot of pain at the moment and she needs family support to keep her going.
The doctors have advised that it is necessary that the tumor is operated soon to avoid any complications. I hope you understand my plight and pardon me.The estimate for the Hysterectomy surgery is $9,000 USD. I have already spent approx. $6,200 USD cash towards her treatment so am wondering if you can assist me with a loan of $2,800 USD to make the necessary arrangement for the surgery to be carried out. Your help and support will give her a chance to live a normal life once again. I will surely pay you back as soon as I return. I will appreciate whatever you can help me with. Kindly let me know if you can be of help so I can send you my Money Gram details since I cannot operate my bank account from here.
Sincerely (Victim Name)
These kinds of emails can be misleading, especially when they come from somebody you know but do not correspond with regularly. This particular email did not come with an attachment (it was trying to obtain money directly, rather than by installing a virus) but similar messages often contain bad attachments.
If you are unsure about whether a particular attachment is safe to open or not, you should contact the sender in question – preferably over the phone or an instant messenger program, not email! You can also contact other friends or relatives of the person in question to see if they have noticed anything amiss.
Be careful where you download software¶
There are many places to get software on the Internet. Some websites (such as download.com, MajorGeeks, and SoftPedia) serve as “software mirrors”, providing (possibly modified) copies of popular software downloads. These websites show up high in web search results, so it is easy to visit them when you are looking for software.
Many mirror websites use ads that try to mislead you into clicking links for things you do not want. In the section “Install an ad blocker” above we saw one example of this. Here is another:
Other websites bundle toolbars and other undesirable software along with the download you want. Often there is legalese on the site claiming that you can opt-out of the extra software, but you have to look carefully:
In addition, some mirror websites provide software that is out of date, but that is a lesser concern.
Not all mirror websites are equally bad, but it is easy to be misled when using them. Overall you are best avoiding mirror sites entirely. If the software is available on Ninite, use that service instead. Otherwise, look for the official software website:
Unfortunately, you have to be careful even in this case, because sometimes official downloads are bundled with toolbars and other junk. The Greenshot software in this example does not, but other software downloads do.
For example, this Java installer changes your homepage and search provider, unless you remember to uncheck the box below:
This download of Adobe Flash Player wants to install a McAfee plugin along with it:
And this download of PDFCreator wants to install an “Ad-Aware Web Companion”, as well as changing your search provider to Bing:
You almost always want to avoid installing this extra software with your downloads.
Astute readers might notice that we recommend https://ninite.com, which is also a sort of mirror website. As of this writing, we believe Ninite does not engage in these kinds of questionable practices.
Once in a while you cannot find legitimate downloads on official sites. In this case you may want to seek help. People at Computer Recycling can help you locate legitimate downloads, or you may have a friend who is both knowledgable about computers and whose judgement you trust.
Be careful about downloading games¶
Games websites are especially prone to spreading malware. As always, misleading websites offering “free games” can be suspect.
If you (or your children!) are interested in getting games software, some options are safer than others.
Access the Computer Recycling library¶
Computer Recycling has put together a library of games which we believe to be malware-free. Many of these games are open source ones. Please contact Computer Recycling to access this library of games. We can put some installers on a USB key for you, or burn you a DVD of them.
Many of these games are less sophisticated than commercial videogames, but lots of them are still fun to play.
Be careful about Flash games¶
Many games use the Adobe Flashplayer plugin to run. Some game sites are sketchy and some are less so. If you choose to play Flash-based games then you should make sure that your copy of Flash Player is up to date (Adobe releases updates for Flash player frequently).
If you would like suggestions for safer Flash sites to use, please contact Computer Recycling.
Consider the Steam service¶
There is a games service called Steam (http://store.steampowered.com) which is popular with gamers. Steam tends to sell commercial games for money, but some games are free to play, and you are not obligated to enter credit card information in order to create an account. You can install the Steam client with Ninite:
See the section on using Ninite for more information: Use Ninite for common downloads
As far as we know, downloads on Steam are free of malware. You have to be careful when using Steam, however:
- Many of the games cost money, so you want to make sure you are only paying for products you want.
- Even some of the games listed as “Free to Play” allow “in-app purchases”, which means that the games encourage people to purchase items inside the game.
- The games on Steam tend to be better suited for higher-end computers.
Many programs come bundled with web browsing toolbars, such as the Google Toolbar, the Ask Toolbar, the Bing Bar, or Conduit Search. For the most part, these are bad news. At the very least they track your movements on the Internet and report your activities to their central servers. In worse cases they can infect your computer with malicious software that is very difficult to remove.
You do not need toolbars to surf the web effectively. You can use favorites or bookmarks to visit websites you care about easily. You can also change your preferred search engine easily. Contact Computer Recycling if you would like help in doing these things.
Avoid tuneup software and registry cleaners¶
Many advertisements on the Internet promise to “speed up your system”, “repair missing Windows files”, “improve PC performance”, “clean your registry” or do other helpful things on your computers. Most of these programs are ineffective, and some are themselves malware. You should not download or use any of them, and you should be particularly wary of any advertisements or popups that claim your computer is slow or has viruses.
There is one legitimate product we know of which will clean out unused temporary files from your computer, but we are reluctant to recommend it here. Firstly, it is no longer available on Ninite. Secondly, installing the free version can be tricky. Thirdly, many malware creators know that this product is legitimate, and try to mislead users into thinking that their malware is actually the legitimate product. If you are interested in cleaning out temporary files, contact Computer Recycling and we can help you out.
Avoid pirated software and key generators¶
Some software is expensive. It is very tempting to download illegally-distributed (“pirated”) copies of this software from so-called “warez” sites or torrents. Sometimes you might be tempted to download key generating software that will activate demo versions of software without you having to register or pay for the software.
As a general rule, this is a bad idea! Often the people who are making illegal software available for download have ulterior motives. Many of them want to make money, and one way to do so is by including viruses along with the illegal downloads. People who have no moral compunctions about redistributing other people’s software often have no moral compunctions about infecting your computer with viruses either.
Often there are free and legal alternatives to the software you are looking for. These free alternatives may not be as sophisticated as the commercial software you are tempted to pirate, but often they will get the job done. One good resource for finding such software is the Alternatives To site: http://alternativeto.net/
You can also ask knowledgable friends or volunteers at Computer Recycling for suggestions.
When deciding upon alternative software, you want to make good choices. Poorly-written or infrequently-updated software can also make your computer more vulnerable to viruses. It can be helpful to ask yourself a few questions:
- Is the software regularly updated for security issues?
- Do the software developers take security issues seriously?
- Is there a sizable community of people who use the software and report problems?
- Does the software work well? Does it do most of what you need?