Preventing Virus Infection

The most important actions that you should take to avoid the scourge of computer viruses are:
  1. Install the current version of an anti-virus software program such as Norton AntiVirus or McAfee VirusScan, and keep the virus information file up to date so that the software can recognize new viruses as they appear. Usually, you can automate the process of updating the virus information so that your anti-virus software will maintain itself once you install and configure it properly.
  2. Keep up with your Operating System Updates. For Windows users this means doing your Windows Updates. For Macintosh users, this means checking your Software Updater. So many viruses come in through security holes or vulnerabilities in your OS. The makers of the OS (e.g. Microsoft) are always finding new holes that need to be plugged up. By keeping up with your updates, you are severely limiting the number of viruses that can even make it to your computer, much less do any harm. Almost all of the infected computers that come by the Help Desk are not current with their updates. Protect yourself, do your updates.
  3. Exercise reasonable caution when opening e-mail attachments, even if they seem to come from a friend of yours - in fact, especially if they seem to come from a friend, since most recent viruses have exploited the power of some e-mail programs by sending themselves to everyone in an infected machine's address book. If you're not expecting to receive an attachment from someone or if the nature of the message seems odd (the dean will not be sending you her favorite list of jokes), then don't open the attachment until you have confirmed that it is legitimate.
  4. Turn off File Sharing. If you don't need to have file sharing turned on, then turn it off. As long as your computer has file and printer sharing enabled, it is more vulnerable to various kinds of intrusion over the network, including virus infection. There have been instances in the past in which users with outdated anti-virus software and unprotected shared folders have had their computers infected by viruses within minutes of attaching their computers to ResNet at the beginning of the fall semester. These infections could have been prevented if File Sharing had been turned off and if the student had up-to-date anti-virus software installed.
You need all of these actions to protect yourself fully. The software will fend off most viruses, including those arriving in a downloaded program, on a friend's diskette, or even (as has happened a few times) on an installation CD for commercial software. But it can't protect you against a new virus that spreads fast (as some of the email-borne or network-aware viruses do) and reaches you before your virus information file is updated to include the new virus. That's when your instinct for self-preservation must kick in to prevent you from opening an unexpected or suspicious attachment without first checking its origin.

There is one other thing that you can do to protect yourself.

It requires more effort on your part than the two crucial actions listed above, but it has the advantage of protecting you not only in the event of a virus attack, but also from hardware failures, badly written software, theft, fire, flood, spilled soft drinks, and your own crazed actions after a sleepless night spent writing a paper ahead of a looming deadline. This remarkable panacea is the regular creation and safe storage of backups of your critical files.

You can use specialized backup software like the backup program that comes with Windows or Retrospect for the Macintosh or you can just copy the files you need to a diskette, Zip disk, or writeable CD. But at least every week, create a backup and store it in a safe place away from your computer (so that the plumbing failure that soaks your computer won't also wash away your backups). If you are in the midst of a big, important project like a final paper, take-home exam, or senior thesis, then daily or hourly backups may be appropriate. The question to ask yourself is whether you'd rather take a few minutes to create the backup or spend the time required to recreate the work if some disaster struck your computer or the files you need.