How to Protect Yourself from Viruses

One of the best ways to protect yourself from a virus is to know something about the way they work. By learning how to be a smart computer user in your own right, you can successfully navigate around a majority of the infectious material that lurks about waiting to strike. The Information Technology Group has supplied this page, containing several sections on virus-safe computing, so that you might have the information you need to keep yourself uninfected right at your fingertips.

Know Your Source
Floppy diskettes are favored vehicles for spreading viruses. Each year, a number of users come to the Information Technology Group with media they have used or received that has been infected somewhere outside of the Institute. University computer labs and clusters are notorious for causing disk infections; likewise, accepting material from a user with an out-of-date virus scanning utility or someone who is not protected by such software at all makes you more susceptible. Some rules you should follow when using diskettes:

  • Rule #1 -Never boot your computer when there is a diskette in the disk drive. The only time you should make an exception is when you are working with a known-good Boot disk (like a Windows 95/98 StartUp disk).
  • Rule #2- If you come back to your own computer after working with someone else's machine, scan the diskettes you used with antivirus software BEFORE you do ANYTHING else.
  • Rule #3- Whenever you receive disk media from someone else, scan it using antivirus software BEFORE you do ANYTHING else with it.
  • Rule #4- Do not execute a file on a diskette that you are not 100% certain about. This goes for all executable programs and even some MS Word documents that contain macros. Scan all the files on the disk first, it's worth the extra time.

If It Looks Suspicious, Don't Open It
E-mail is another common vehicle for virus transmission. Given our reliance on this mode of communication at the Institute, it may even be the most dangerous in terms of virus infection for us. Viruses are transmitted via E-mail ONLY IN THE FORM OF AN ATTACHED DOCUMENT! You cannot be infected by simply receiving or reading the text of a message. You must copy or execute (open) a file that has been attached to an E-mail in order to infect your own computer. (Evidence the Melissa or CIH scares of the recent past.) Here are some rules you should follow when dealing with suspect E-mail messages:

  • Rule #1-Never open or save an E-mail attachment from a source with which you are not familiar.
  • Rule #2- Use good judgment when opening an attachment from a known source. The Melissa virus, transmitted via E-mail attachments, has the ability to send itself to you using your friends' and colleagues' E-mail address books, usually without their knowledge or permission. If your name is in one of those books on an infected computer, you could get a cleverly-disguised, infectious note from someone you know. (The original Melissa E-mail text read, "Important Message from [insert your friend's name here]. Here's that document you asked for...don't show anyone else;)." Who can blame some many for falling victim to it?) The bottom line is- read your messages closely. If you suspect the document is infected with something, don't open it, talk to the Information Technology Group first.
  • Rule #3- When in doubt, throw it out. You can always get a file from someone on paper or on disk. Delete messages with suspect attachments as soon as you can.
  • Rule #4- If you do manage to open an infected attachment, make sure you contact the original sender and inform him or her of the problem so it can be corrected at the source.

Learn How to Spot a Hoax
In addition to real viruses, worms and Trojans that are transmitted by E-mail, there are also virus hoax messages, chain messages really, that circulate around the Internet. These messages are designed to scare you enough to send a copy of the hoax on to someone else (hopefully many someones). If you get an E-mail telling you that your computer has been infected with a virus or you get one that of some impressive sounding technological institution that has confirmed a rampant epidemic of virus infection of one kind or another, you're probably being fooled. Hoaxes are not dangerous, per se, but they are annoying and do eat up valuable resources that could be applied to more worthy pursuits than the spread of fear and panic. Specific examples of hoax messages (there are many, many more): EVIL THE CAT, GOOD TIMES, HAPPY BIRTHDAY and JOIN THE CREW.

If you get a message that sounds threatening, but you can't tell whether it's real or not, call the Help Desk (x8044) and confirm it with us. If you prefer to do things on your own, take a look at the list of virus hoaxes on Symantec's SARC Web site, it is truly comprehensive. Whatever you do, please delete hoaxes as soon as you have confirmed that they are not a threat, and please don't send them to anyone else.

Know Your Anti-virus Resources
Norton Antivirus (NAV) software is installed on each new computer supplied by the Information Technology Group. You can use this program to scan for virus-infected files and diskettes whenever you suspect you have a problem. To learn more about how the Norton AntiVirus program is implemented at the Institute, see our Norton AntiVirus page.

If you do not have any type of antivirus software on your home computer, consider purchasing some. There are many different software packages out on the market today, so you have a lot to choose from. If you need help finding the right software manufacturer, see our Virus Resources page for links to popular manufacturer home pages. You can also use the links on the Virus Resources to learn more about viruses in general. If you need to find a place to purchase your software, see our Princeton-Area Vendor Resources page.

As always, the Information Technology Group (x8044) is a resource too. We are ready to come to your aid if you get stuck or confused. Call us anytime with a virus-related question.

Be Vigilant
The Norton AntiVirus software supplied to you on your PC must be updated to remain effective by the ever-rising tide of virus threats. Thankfully, Symantec has incorporated a feature called LiveUpdate into the NAV program interface. Gone are the days when you needed to connect to a BBS or send away for a floppy disk to update your virus patterns. Using LiveUpdate, the Information Technology Group is able to keep your antivirus software updated for you.

Have A Backup
Finally, if you really want to protect all of your valuable work and software, you must- absolutely -keep backups of everything on your computer. If you are in your Institute office, make sure you place copies of all your work files on diskette, or, for Staff and Faculty, in your network drive folder (I:\ drive). If you are working on your home computer, make sure you have some backup measure in place- whether it be to diskette, tape, ZIP, or otherwise. Also, make sure you have all your home computer's original software on disk or CD. Backing up not only protects you from virus attacks, but it also saves you from hardware failures, software failures, personal mistakes, your kids' mistakes, major disasters... You probably get the point.

Follow the guidelines we've outlined above and you're bound to feel safer the next time you're threatened by the specter of a computer virus. Thanks for reading. Happy and, above all, safe computing!