1. Check your email. As we’ve discussed previously, never click on a link or attachment in an email unless you are certain that it has come from a trusted source. Remember that anybody can be compromised or infected, so if the text of an email sounds strange or somehow not quite right, a quick phone call or reply email is all it takes to doublecheck that the message is legit.
Pay close attention to any attachments you receive. Unless you were expecting something and know exactly who sent it, do not open it. Even if it’s your mother, best friend, or boss, reply to any unexpected or unusual-looking emails to find out whether or not it’s real.
Remember that double extensions, like .jpg.exe or .zip.vbs, are not what they might seem — do not open them under any circumstances.
2. Change your outlook. While we’re on the topic of email, be extra careful if you are still using Microsoft Outlook. While Outlook is a very efficient email program packed with a bunch of useful features, the program is a more frequent target of virus and spyware infections than alternative programs such as Mozilla Thunderbird or Eudora. To avoid using an email client completely, take your mail into the cloud, using a Gmail address exclusively. (Google might actually be a suitable replacement for your entire office suite, too.)
If you’re still a fan of Microsoft’s programs, there are a number of anti-spam add-ons available. Check them out if you’d like another alternative.
3. Get a good anti-virus program. An obvious way of avoiding viruses is to set up your computer to recognize and scan for malware. Programs like Norton, Sophos, McAfee, and AVG all do the job very well and can be set up to update definitions and scan your entire system on a regular schedule.
While computer security is an area you do not want to skimp on and we’re constantly told that you get what you pay for, don’t shy away from the free options. AVG’s free version is very nearly as good as the higher-priced applications, minus a few of the bells and whistles you may not need anyway. It is one of the most frequently recommended anti-virus programs for good reason.
4. Scan again with anti-spyware. It might seem that anti-virus programs are very similar to anti-spyware applications, but the two programs are a bit different. Each looks for different things, and even though their findings may overlap on some things, you’ll commonly pick things up with your anti-spyware program that the anti-virus hadn’t picked as a problem.
Look for programs like Ad-Aware, Windows Defender, Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, and Spybot Search & Destroy. Again, they’re all very good, and higher price tags don’t necessarily reflect higher quality programming.
5. Check your browser. There are other ways your computer can be infected, so keep an eye out for random popups that appear while browsing the internet. If something shows up unexpectedly claiming to be your anti-virus software and reporting that your computer has problems or a virus, it’s probably a scam. Look carefully, and ignore anything with spelling errors or incorrect English or that refers to a program you do not have installed on your machine.
Another scam involves popup advertising that warns of errors that can only be fixed if you purchase a particular brand of software. Obviously this is a hoax, and the software itself is likely to be a virus or piece of malware itself. If you encounter one of these, the safest thing is to close your internet browser immediately (do not click on the “scan” or “exit” buttons, and even the “x” to close the popup may trigger its nasty payload). It’s a good idea to do an update your anti-virus software and perform a full scan. It’s unlikely that anything is lurking on your system, but it’s a very good idea to check anyway.