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How to spot a virus

In the first of a series of columns designed to demystify technology problems, Stephen Alexander, Managing Director of First Internet Marketing, gives the low-down on how to spot a computer virus…before it’s too late:

Viruses and spam emails are the scourge of the modern business environment, costing companies of all sizes thousands of pounds a year. Viruses, in particular, pose huge financial risks in terms of disruption caused, the impact of lost files, administration and the software needed to purge systems. Although there are several excellent options out there for protecting computers against viruses, it’s crucial to know how to spot those that make it past anti-virus software.

Viruses come in a number of different forms: the most common are known as ‘trojans’ and ‘worms’. Trojans are programs that have usually been downloaded onto the computer by what we call social engineering; that means by persuading the recipient to open an attachment. Worms are a slightly different type of virus. These are programs that exploit security holes in computer software and can then install and run themselves. Viruses are highly evolved and are constantly mutating. Spotting one is not always straightforward and, just like with a human virus, it’s important to recognise the symptoms.

Firstly, it is crucial to make sure anti-virus software and virus definitions are up-to-date. If not, these must be updated, and then a full system scan can be performed to ascertain that the anti-virus software can spot any infection.

Signs that your computer may have been struck by a virus include:

* It starts to run slowly
* It crashes or programs start shutting themselves down
* Files become corrupt and unopenable
* The computer doesn’t start up at all
* Internet pages load slowly (especially on a 56k modem connection).

Another indicator that a virus may be present is if the processor is running at 100%. It is possible to check the processor usage by doing the following: ctrl-alt + del and then the “Task Manager” button; then select the “performance” tab from the program window that opens (Windows 2000 and XP only, unfortunately Windows 98 doesn’t have this functionality).

It’s important to remember that anti-virus programs are not “cure alls”. They only block known viruses or those that have a specific signature, which acts like a fingerprint and defines them as viruses. Although anti-virus software protects against many strains, it cannot, unfortunately, detect all of them. So be observant at all times to spot these pernicious gremlins – before they make themselves at home on your IT system.

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