The Boogeyman Virus

Some of us think that any problem, slowdown, or missing file on our computer is caused by a virus.  And some of us remember fondly those years ago when a virus was the only thing you had to worry about.  In reality most people have problems with the computer on a regular basis.  Also, in reality, most of those problems are not viruses.  But like the gremlins of aviators, we think of everything that can go wrong with our computer as being caused by a “virus”, when that is simply not true.  But the question is, how do you know?

What are Viruses?  Or are the Virii?  Whatever.

A virus is considered the most primitive life form, because its sole function seems to be creating more exact replicas of itself.  In fact, some scientists don’t even consider it a form of life, but a raw chemical machine, copying and recopying its genetic code to no other purpose or intention.  And that is what a virus is — little more than code — which brings us to computer viruses.  A computer virus is a program that is designed to make copies of itself on a machine or across a connection to other machines.  It started out as a gaming geeks played to see how many computers that could infect around the world, sort of like a chain letter.  They were mostly harmless, and did nothing more than take up a little space or memory resources.  Some were nasty.  They were designed to delete files or change settings to wreak havoc, but not before sending copies of itself to other computers.

Understanding how they do this is vital to protecting yourself.  Remember how I said that most problems aren’t viruses?  Well, most problems get on your system the same way that viruses use to make their copies throughout the world.  Just like a virus in your body, it can only get there through some kind of contact.  This means loading a program, either from a disk or from the Internet via e-mail or visiting a webpage.and just like viruses attach themselves to cells.  Most viruses attach themselves to a program, even one that otherwise might be harmless.  That is why your e-mail system will block some e-mails with some attachments, such as spreadsheets or executables (files ending in.EXE).  That is also why most or all courts will not allow you per to present evidence via disk unless you use your own laptop.

Harmful programs are usually not classified as viruses, but malware or spyware.  Their purpose is not to spread, just to infect, and infection means causing your your computer to behave in a certain way.  Malware might mean more pop-ups or other advertisements, even when you are no longer connected to the Internet.  Spyware are programs that send your information out to other people, such as your web browsing history, or in worst case, key logging software that records your keystrokes to steal passwords.  Ironically, some Malware is designed to give you a warning that a virus or other problems are on your system, prompting you to download their software to fix it, usually for a price.  Some webpages give you all warning of the problem with your system, asking you to take some action to fix it, when such action will actually infect your system with their software.  That is why you should never respond to a warning unless you know it is coming from software already on your system.

Some problems that are mistaken for viruses may not even be on your computer.  For example, people may say that they received e-mails from your e-mail address.  Sometimes you may even receive e-mail claiming to be from your own address.  In the old days, this would be the sign of a virus using your e-mail program to send itself to everyone you know.  However, today this is almost always what is called “spoofing”.  This is the equivalent of someone sending a piece of snail mail with your return address, even though they do not live with you.  Your system did not send it out.   Usually, they randomly selected your e-mail address from a spam list, and used yours instead of theirs.  Unfortunately there is nothing you can do about that, except be aware that it can happen, and if it happens often, doublecheck and make sure it is not actually coming from your system.

The Upshot

To a layman, these all might as well be viruses.  But if you want to fix them, you should not assume your antivirus program is the solution, or tell someone helping you with technical assistance that a virus is the problem.  Chances are you really don’t know if it’s a virus or at all, and chances are that it isn’t.  There are many, many reasons a computer may not be working properly, i.e. running slowly or freezing.  These are usually hardware problems or problems caused by software you installed on your system.  It could be not enough memory.  It could be running too many programs at once, even ones you don’t realize are running in the background.  And yes, some of your cute little programs you downloaded, such as weather bug or various browser toolbars often have spyware built into them.  That is why you should never download a program unless you know and trust where it is coming from, and even then some common brand-name companies bundle such things in their common products, and it is up to you to read the fine print.

So the next time something unexpected or unwanted happens to your system, don’t blame it on the bogeyman.  Simply explain the symptoms of your problem to the person who will help you fix it.  Of course, running your antivirus and anti-spyware programs won’t hurt, but even these don’t always catch the culprit.  Not making assumptions is the most important thing when dealing with this sort of problem.  And whatever you do, don’t keep adding more software, or restoring over and over again, to fix the problem.  You can never catch the bogeyman, until you know who he is.