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Fred’s Head, offered by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains tips, techniques, tutorials, in-depth articles, and resources for and by blind or visually impaired people. Our blog is named after the legendary Fred Gissoni, renowned for answering a seemingly infinite variety of questions on every aspect of blindness.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How to Protect Yourself: Virus Information and FREE Virus Scanners

It seems that there is no end to viruses, trojans, and worms. We've seen variants of the Beagle, Netsky, MyDoom, and so on and so on. Most of these nasties were transported or replicated from pc to pc using email attachments. These are easy to spot if you're paying attention, simply because they are usually executable files, but not always.

Some attachments contain Macros (simple programs that run within other programs-all the titles in Microsoft Office use macros). If you're not that familiar with spotting file extensions, don't worry, that's what I'm going to talk about in this article. If you're a little hazy on the whole "file extension" thing then let's spend a few moments explaining it.

File extensions are what tell the program how to treat a particular piece of data. For example, most people are somewhat familiar with .doc or a .txt file extension, these are both text documents and when the user opens this file the Operating System looks at this extension and then knows how to open it.

Bad Hackers try to use some sort of eye-grabbing ploy to get you to open their email and activate the virus which is always an attachment. Most Anti-virus nowadays stop, or at least warn, you of these high risk attachments and even take measures to protect you. However, on the average, 10-15 new viruses are created every day and I personally wouldn't count on any program to 100% protect my pc. That's why I scrutinize any email-if I wasn't expecting an attachment, I won't open it until I had a chance to talk to the sender.

Some of the more common file types used to hide viruses include:

  • .scr - Windows Screen Saver - USE CAUTION if you receive a screen saver via email. They can contain worms or viruses
  • .pif - DO NOT OPEN! This is most likely a virus. Clicking it will run a program or code that can mess up your computer.
  • .exe - executable file-a program that contains a virus, trojan horse, or worm
  • .pps - MS PowerPoint (can contain macro virus)
  • .zip - Zip (compressed) file with a nasty surprise inside
  • .vbs - Visual Basic script
  • .bat - Executable MS-DOS batch file
  • .com - DOS executable command
  • .asp - active server page-internet script
  • .doc - Word document (can contain macro virus)
  • .xls - Excel file (can contain macro virus)

This is in no way a complete list. Just because an attachment may have one of these extensions doesn't mean that it is a virus, but it should send up warning flags. Bad guys use clever subject lines, and viruses can appear to come from a friend so keep on your toes and don't fall victim to their deceptive traps. Scan those attachments and verify with the sender before opening.

Email Security Scan

Let's see how secure your defenses are against mail-born threats. Think you're up to the test? Then read on.

The problem with all the security holes that arise from day to day is that it's hard to keep up. "Am I protected?" you wonder, "I update constantly, I scrutinize all my email messages, especially attachments, and read all of the awesome security articles that appear in Fred's Head, but how do I know for sure?"

Well, since such a large number of security holes center around email I'm happy to tell you about a service that can check your system for potential exploits. The service is a web based email scanner that you can tailor to send out over 20 different emails, each attempting to defile your system with dummy exploits. It's like hiring a security agent to go over your system and tell you what aspects of your security is in good shape, and what areas could use some improvement.

When set in motion, the scanner fires off the dummy viruses and exploits to the specified email address. Don't be surprised if your virus software starts popping up with security messages, as a matter of fact, this is exactly what you want to happen, it means your system is seeing the threats coming in.

The emails themselves have message bodies describing what their particular test was for and how to make sure you're protected from this sort of attack. Some of the emails have attachments and some attempt to create text documents on your desktop, the emails tell you exactly what to do to ensure the tests ran correctly, thus providing an accurate assessment of your system's defenses.

In addition to the testing your system for security holes this is also a good way to educate yourself on some email-born security issues by getting a chance to see them in action without putting yourself in any danger.

Click here if you would like to have your email security tested:

Free Virus Scanners

So, that new computer you purchased doesn't seem to be running as fast as it did a few months ago? Your anti-virus program now says that your subscription has ended? Sorry, can't help with this one.

But I do have some good news for you... I just saved a load of money on my, oh wait... wrong commercial. Actually, I can help you. There are some excellent free virus scanners, and some can even be run online.

I recommend Trend Micro's Housecall: for starters, which will scan your computer for viruses directly from the web. They also offer a free online spyware scanner.

There's also Panda ActiveScan: which scans, disinfects and eliminates over 90,000 viruses, worms and trojans from your hard disks, compressed files and email.

Both of these sites are trustworthy and use an ActiveX applet to do the scanning. If you have trouble starting the scan, your security settings may be too high. Follow the instructions on the site to modify your settings and things should work fine.

Use an Offline Virus Scanner

For maximum protection, I recommend that you also install a good anti-virus program on your computer, which will scan your system at startup and continuously thereafter. McAfee virus protection is now included with AOL membership, and Road Runner offers their users the EZ-Armor package at no charge. If your ISP isn't offering any freebies, check out the free AVG package from Grisoft at . Screen reader users please note that later versions of AVG are, unfortunately, not 100% compatible. This is disappointing, I have used AVG for over seven years with no difficulty. I'm not saying that you can't use the program, but you may be limited when accessing program features and setup options.

Avast! Antivirus

After hearing about all the problems that Jaws users have encountered when upgrading to AVG version 8.0, I decided to try to avoid those problems and installed Avast Home edition on my computer. This version of Avast is free for non-commercial use.

My experience with the program has been very positive. Installation was straight forward and learning to use the program has been very easy.

For increased accessibility, after installation, Users should open the program settings from the Avast icon on the system tray. From there, tab into the common settings and be sure that the "use skins" item is not checked. I would also recommend to tab into the "update basic" section and set the program update option to automatic. Other than that, I left all other options at the default settings.

The things I like about Avast:

  1. The computer scan ran in 20 minutes instead of 1 hour for AVG.
  2. Besides viruses, it's always scanning for rootkits and spyware which AVG only did with the full paid version.
  3. It monitors all web pages for malicious activity, which AVG did not do.
  4. It monitors all network traffic for network attacks and works in conjunction with your firewall software.
  5. If you use IM clients or Peer-to-peer networks, it will protect you on both of these fronts. If you don't use this, you can disable those services to save resources.
  6. I noticed that after installing Avast, my computer boot up time is about 1 minute faster.
  7. I have noticed that overall computer performance is better, which is a nice unexpected benefit.

Things I don't like:

  1. Avast does not allow you to schedule a daily or weekly computer scan with the free Home version. This really isn't a problem for me, since I had disabled this in AVG and ran the scan manually. Running a scan is very simple from the desktop icon.
  2. You are required to register the Avast Home product or it will stop working 60 days after installation. This is a very simple process but does require sighted assistance if done through their website. You can alternatively send an email to the support team stating that you are a blind user who needs to register and they will send you your registration code, which you will need to paste into the registration screen. The registration is good for 14 months, at which time you will need to re-register. Not a big sacrifice for free access to such a great program.
  3. I did notice that downloading a large number of email messages in a single batch was about 20% slower than with AVG. If you only use web mail and not an email client such as Outlook or Thunderbird, then this will not affect you.
Click this link to download avast! antivirus for your home computer.

NOD32 antivirus

ESET Smart Security is another accessible way to combat today's huge volumes of Internet and email threats. It combines ESET's award-winning NOD32 proactive antivirus and antispyware protection with a powerful yet easy-to-use firewall and robust antispam technology.

ESET Smart Security detects and disables both known and unknown viruses, trojans, worms, adware, spyware, rootkits and other Internet threats. It's easy to use yet simple to optimize for your specific needs.

Click this link to download ESET Smart Security.

Grisoft Anti-Rootkit

Rootkits are a type of specially crafted code that is embedded within another application or even in a system's operating system. They spy on and capture information from the infected system and are invisible to most traditional antivirus solutions. This inability to identify the offending code leaves the system compromised, while the owner feels as if they are protected and they continue to conduct their business as usual.

Grisoft, the makers of the popular free personal antivirus solution AVG, has seen the rise of rootkits over the past year or so and they have been feverishly working to create a solution now, when the public needs it most. Grisoft says that their program will successfully find and remove rootkits, without hassling the user with false findings, prevalent in similar programs.

The program is simple to use too. Just download the application from their website and install it to your computer. After the install, you will be prompted to reboot your system. When your system has started back up, the AVG anti-rootkit application will be in your Programs list (Start, All Programs, AVG Anti-Rootkit) where it can be launched. From the main interface, simply select either "Search for rootkits" or "Perform an in depth scan." Then just watch the progress bar go.

At the end of the scan, the AVG Anti-Rootkit will display the results and offer more options as necessary. It's that easy to check your system for rootkits.

The rootkit remover has an update feature and it should be a very welcome addition to any user's security and cleaning arsenal! Click this link for a direct download of Grisoft Anti-Rootkit.

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