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Vaccinating Your Computer

The new e-mail viruses make it more and more likely that you and your computer will run into one if you haven't already. Take some steps now to prevent problems.

First some clarification. A computer virus is a group of computer instructions (code) hidden maliciously in a program. This code tells the computer to make copies of the code and hide it in other programs each time you run the program, much like a human cold virus tricks a body cell into making more viruses which then infect other cells. Just like your body with a cold, the computer slows down when it is spending an increasing amount of time copying the virus rather than running your program. Often the code also shows a message or erases file; inadvertent printing problems are common too. Computer worms are complete programs which replicate and distribute themselves. Trojan horses are programs which seem to do one thing and actually do another: a famous one showed porno pictures while erasing your hard drive. Only the hard core computer folk break things down like this. Most people group all the above types under the term virus and use it to mean a computer problem, intentionally coded by someone, that it can be passed on to another computer. I'm going to use it in this general sense from here on.

Of course, humans can not catch or transmit a computer virus. It used to be that data files, such as word processing or spreadsheet documents, could not infect your computer with a virus. Only programs or format-infected floppies used to be able to transmit a virus but with the increasing sophistication of software, Microsoft Office in particular, this isn't true anymore.

The best solution is to get virus protection software, use it automatically and update it frequently. All the major players have free trial packages on their web sites. Norton Antivirus (www.norton.com: Mac $70, Windows $60), Dr. Soloman's Virex (www.mcafee.com: Mac $70, Windows $60 ), McAfee VirusScan (www.mcafee.com: Windows $50), F-PROT (www.datafellows.com: Windows $99, includes other stuff) and Trends PC-cillin (www.antivirus.com: Windows $40) are all good packages and take turns out performing each other in the ratings. Norton has cheaper prices on their web site for downloaded vs. packaged copies. You may find the others doing this also.

When you install any of these packages, they only know about the viruses around when the software was packaged. Since the virus writers (usually teenage boys looking for peer recognition, the same mentality as graffiti writers but with more expensive toys) are constantly coming up with new things, you must update the "virus definitions" the software uses frequently. You can do this easily if you have a modem and an internet connection. Since on-line is also where most new viruses are propagating, it is only fitting. If you are not on-line you probably don't have as much exposure to new viruses (unless your kids are bringing home floppies from school) but you must wait for disks to arrive from the software manufacturer and there is usually a charge. Maybe you can get a friend to download the update from the web site for you. You get updates for free for a year. After that you need to consider the cost of updating your virus definitions: some are free, Norton charges $4/year and McAfee seems to be charging $30/year (this may be my misreading of their web site).

When you hear about new viruses you can check the following web sites for information and usually fixes. www.symantec.com/avcenter, vil.mcafee.com, www.datafellows.com, www.antivirus.com/vinfo, www.norton.com

Even with virus protection software installed, your protection is only as good as your last update. You can further decrease your chance of problems by being careful in what you allow onto your computer.

Give us a call at 206-523-0872 if you have further questions.

copyright 1999 Karen Seymour

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