Do you know how computer viruses spread? How about what tools hackers use to gain access to your computer so that they can record everything you do on it? Viruses and spyware are terribly scary prospects to most internet users. However, most people don’t have a very comprehensive understanding of how they can protect themselves or their business from these weapons of cybercrime.
That’s why today, we’re going over how computer viruses and spyware work as well as offering you six ways you can protect your organisation from these IT security threats.
What are viruses?
Just like a virus that gives you the flu, a computer virus works by replicating and spreading itself from host to host. A virus always spreads through some form of programming, such as a document or a file that can install malicious code onto your device. After this code has been installed, it’ll lie dormant until the programme it has infected is run. Once your computer has been infected with a virus, it can also spread to other computers in your network.
After a computer virus has been activated, it can wreak havoc by stealing your data or login details, spamming your contacts or even taking control over your device completely. Some telltale symptoms of a computer virus include slow performance and frequent crashes, unexpected password changes, mass emails being sent from your account and strange pop-ups and computer programmes appearing on your screen.
What is spyware?
Spyware is exactly what it sounds like: software that spies on you in order to steal your data. Some types of spyware are relatively harmless and simply record your internet usage for marketing purposes. More malicious forms of spyware can gain access to almost everything you type on your computer, including your emails and other messaging tools and the login details to your online accounts.
Hackers can then use this information to commit fraud, steal your identity or sell your information on the dark web to the highest bidder. Signs that your device might have been compromised by spyware are similar to those of a computer infected by a virus.
How to protect yourself from viruses and spyware
1. Read the small print
Let’s be honest here: very few people actually take the time to read through those long user agreements they get when signing up for an online service or downloading a software product. However, taking some time to read through the small print here could be the thing that protects you from getting infected by spyware.
So look through licensing agreements and privacy statements before agreeing to them. Look for mentions of data gathering and sharing information with third parties. You can always use the “find in page” function (Ctrl + F in Windows, Cmd + F in Mac) to search for mentions of these in long documents.
2. Block third-party cookies & running scripts without permission
There are a few things you can configure in your web browser settings that can help you protect yourself against viruses and spyware. First of all, you should consider blocking third-party cookies. While many cookies are absolutely harmless and even useful, some are used for malicious purposes.
You can disable third-party cookies altogether and create a whitelist of trustworthy websites you’ll allow cookies from. This way you can still enjoy websites you know aren’t malicious.
Another measure you can take is blocking your computer from running scripts without your explicit permission – most web browsers support this. Scripting is something malicious websites often use for installing harmful code on your computer, so disabling this helps protect you from many viruses and other cyber attacks.
3. Only click on email attachments & pop-ups you can trust
A common way that viruses and spyware get onto your computer network is when someone clicks a dodgy link in a spam email or pop-up window. These might look like legitimate messages from sources you trust, such as your bank asking for your log-in details or your operating system telling you to download a free anti-virus product or a software update. They could also offer you something that seems too good to be true, like a free iPhone.
There are a few best practices you can follow to distinguish between genuine messaging and phishing attempts, and our next blog post will go into more detail into how to do this. The two rules of thumb you should keep in mind is to always look at the details of the message to figure out whether it’s authentic and that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
We’ve all heard horror stories about people clicking on phishing links in emails that seem genuine, but do you know what a malicious email actually looks like? Want to test how savvy you and your employees are when it comes to distinguishing between genuine and malicious emails? Get in touch with us for a free phishing IT security test for your organisation.
4. Keep strong passwords
This is a very simple step to take to protect yourself from viruses and spyware, yet many people neglect to take it. You should use a different password for all accounts and make sure that they are strong. A strong password is a combination of upper and lower-case letters, numbers and special characters.
Your password shouldn’t be something personal that can be guessed easily, such as a name or a birthday. You should also change passwords regularly. If you need a helping hand creating strong passwords and keeping track of them all, consider signing up for a secure password folder service. LastPass and 1Password are just two of the many options out there.
5. Use anti-malware software & firewalls
Using a variety of products – from firewalls to anti-virus and anti-malware software – gives you a strong layer of protection from spyware and computer viruses. You can read more about how firewalls work and how to use one to protect your organisation with one in our recent blog post here.
Anti-malware and anti-spyware products protect your computer and its associated network from spyware and viruses by scanning your incoming network data and isolating or blocking any threats it finds.
6. Consider DNS protection
DNS stands for Domain Name System, which is, simply put, the phone book of the internet. When you enter a URL into your browser, DNS servers take this written data (e.g. google.com) and translate it into a string of numbers known as an IP address.
DNS servers are the reason we can easily search for the website we want online without having to memorise long IP addresses, but this system is susceptible to cyber attacks. That’s why organisations that take their cybersecurity seriously should consider purchasing DNS protection to shield themselves from hackers. The DNS service we recommend is Webroot DNS.
This cloud-based service takes just minutes to set up and gives you detailed on-demand reports on things like the threats that the service has shielded you from. You can also use this product to block access to potentially dangerous or unwanted sites, such as sites linked to malware or adult content.
We should remind you here that DNS protection alone isn’t enough to shield you and your organisation from cybersecurity threats. While a DNS protection service will add a good layer of security to your computer network, it’s not enough to protect your devices and sensitive data – it should only make up one part of a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy.