Do I have a virus? What is a virus? Where did it come from?

Posted February 25, 2013

In my many years of repairing computers, I would say the most common computer problems I run into are generally virus-based. Viruses themselves come in many shapes and styles and can cause all sorts of different problems, ranging from slightly slowing down your computer to completely rendering the system inoperable.

Now, when it comes to viruses, there are many different words that mean effectively the same thing, with only slight nuances. Many people will use them interchangeably.

  • Malware: Mostly used as a catch all term; essentially it means software that does something that you don’t want it to.
  • Spyware: A form of malware with the primary objective of gaining information from your computer. The information it is trying to collect could be as minor (relatively speaking) as your browsing habits to sell to marketing groups or as severe as attempting to steal your credit card number and banking information.
  • Adware: Often mixed in with spyware, adware usually does some spying, but its primary objective is to put pop-up ads on your computer, usually trying to make it look like they are coming from the webpage you are actually visiting.
  • Trojan Horse: This term technically has nothing to do with what the virus actually does, but more about how it gets into your computer. A Trojan horse is a program that pretends to be something it isn’t. It may be pretending to be a cool game, or a greeting card from friends or relatives.


OK So how do I know if I’m infected?

Unfortunately, there is no absolutely clear cut way to identify if your computer is infected. There are millions of viruses and variations that range from almost invisible to absolutely “in your face”.

The subtle:
One of the first hints at a lesser infection is slowdown and an odd increase in pop-up ads, usually on pages that do not normally throw them at you. If you are finding large pop-up advertisements when visiting Google or Facebook, odds are they aren’t really coming from that page but from something hiding in your computer itself.

Another “tell” is the disappearance of your antivirus or the antivirus becomes unable to update. When a virus slips past your antivirus, it is only a matter of time before the antivirus updates to be able to see the virus. So some viruses are programmed to either remove the antivirus, or stop it from updating.

The total “in your face” virus:
Probably the most common as well as crippling virus you will run into these days imitate an antivirus. You will initially get a large pop-up saying “YOU HAVE BEEN INFECTED BY ________” “ Click here to remove”. Clicking the link will bring up a page asking you to give your credit card information to update the software to remove it. Under no circumstances should you give it your information. The fake antivirus is a part of the virus itself. Some versions of this will stop you from running programs.

Popular myths about viruses

1. The safest way to avoid viruses is never to open e-mails from people you don’t know.

This is half-way good advice, but it is incomplete because it implies people you do know are safe. Just like real viruses, you are far more likely to catch one from someone you trust, who is unknowingly carrying it. Often when someone’s computer is infected, one of the steps the virus will take is to start e-mailing random friends/family. Whenever you get an email with an attachment, the first question you should ask is “am I expecting an email from this person?” When a virus does this, the easiest way to spot it is that they are usually very generic, but often attempt to tug at emotions so that you open them before thinking.

Examples of possible fake e-mails from someone you know:
“Oh my God is this you”
“Hey Cutie”
“I love you”
“How could you do this?”

A good rule of thumb is, if in doubt, call or ask the person before opening an e-mail with a title of that nature. A virus can have complete control of someone’s e-mail, but it will not control the person.

2. I have a virus scan, therefore I cannot possibly be infected.

Having an antivirus is a great step to help lower your risk factor of catching a virus and a very important tool to help you be aware of any viruses that might have silently invaded your computer  and are running in the background. However, no antivirus is 100% effective. When you do have antivirus protection, it is very important to ensure it actually is updating. No matter how good your antivirus is, once your subscription runs out, it becomes worthless. If you cannot afford to renew, it is best to uninstall and try out a free antivirus program. Some good options I would recommend are Avira, Bitdefender or Avast. All three have excellent free versions that are comparable to paid solutions.

If you suspect that you may have a virus, it is often simplest and worth the cost to get a professional to remove it for you. A computer professional can make sure that the virus is completely removed. Most professionals will put your needs first and make sure that you are protected from future attacks by installing a trusted antivirus and make sure that you know how to keep it current with updates.

Removing the virus:

I need to clarify that this blog is intended for laypersons without advanced computer skills. Virus removal difficulty can range from running a simple program, to a very long elaborate process that can cause serious harm if done improperly. In this blog, I am only going to cover the simpler methods. Some viruses may actually prevent you from installing programs to remove them, and will require far more elaborate processes better handled by a professional.

1. Install a decent antivirus program. As mentioned previously, there are many free options, including Bitdefender, Avira and Avast.

2. Run an anti-spyware program. There are many good anti-spyware programs. Most of the free versions for anti-spyware programs do not remain always on like an antivirus, but instead, you have to manually run them. Good anti-spyware programs I would recommend are Malwarebytes and Superantispyware.

A final note: not all antiviruses are made equal. Some have greater successes than others, and price is no real indicator of quality. The “number 1” product is something that changes on a regular basis. Simply because a product is “familiar” or bundled with your latest computer purchase does not guarantee it is the best antivirus program for you. Often the products that are very familiar have been the biggest targets of virus writers. Antivirus programs *can* sometimes interfere with other programs or even in internet connectivity. Again, a computer professional might be needed to diagnose and fix that problem.