A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine emailed me this photo with the following message:
Subject: OMG I hate PCs
This is my new computer at home. I barely use it. WTF. Help.
Despite running Windows 7, which is far less prone to malware and viruses than Windows XP, and using Firefox instead of Internet Explorer, he got hit with this nasty bit of malware which pops up a fake “file recovery” scanner, floods the screen with system errors, marks all files as hidden, and moves other important files to the temp folder, among other fun tricks.
It’s technically possible to remove malware like this but it can be a very time-consuming process. And even if you get rid of the symptoms, in some cases the software buries itself so deep in the system that it never really goes away The path of least resistance, in this case, is to back up your files (if you haven’t been using an automatic backup system), format your hard drive, and start from scratch. Either way, it’s a pain and a terrible waste of time.
Fortunately, there are ways to drastically reduce the possibility of viruses or other malware infecting your PC. Most of these tips don’t cost any money, but I’ve also listed a paid option at the end that provide an extra level of protection, should you feel you need it. This guide is geared towards Windows 7, though these solutions will work in Windows XP and Vista as well.
The Real Problem: Plug-Ins
With Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 9, Microsoft has done a commendable job of shoring up its two biggest security liabilities: the world’s most popular operating system and the world’s most popular web browser.
The big problem isn’t security holes in Windows and IE anymore, although you should always be in the habit of installing Windows updates when prompted. According to a recent report by IT security firm Kaspersky, the vast majority of malware is now delivered through outdated versions of software installed on almost every PC: Adobe Reader, Adobe Flash, Java, and iTunes/QuickTime.
While each of these does serve some purpose on your PC – Flash is needed to watch videos on YouTube, for instance – there are other options that will allow you completely uninstall them without losing any of their features, thereby eliminating any potential security risks when hackers discover flaws in their code.
Uninstall Flash, Reader, and Java
To get started, go ahead and uninstall all three of these programs. In Windows 7, click the Start menu, open the Control Panel, and choose Programs and Features. Browse through the list of applications and look for any instances of Adobe Flash, Adobe Reader, and Java (there may be multiple versions of each). Uninstall any of these that you come across, and restart your computer if prompted.
We’re going to leave QuickTime and iTunes alone for now, since it’s required for iPhone and iPad owners to sync their media and there’s no alternative for it. Just remember to keep it up-to-date when prompted. But if you don’t use iTunes, go ahead and uninstall that as well (doing so will uninstall QuickTime).
With Java, we’re making an assumption that you don’t use it on a regular basis. If you just use the computer to browse the web, check email, and use common software like Microsoft Office, you’ve probably never needed it. Regardless, if something stops working after it’s uninstalled, you can easily re-install it.
Use Google Chrome, Not Internet Explorer
I could spill a lot of ink debating the pros and cons of each of the three most popular web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Google Chrome), and depending on your browsing habits and individual needs, any of them could be the best option for you. But for the purposes of this guide, using Google Chrome for your daily web surfing is a no-brainer for a couple of big reasons.
By uninstalling Adobe Flash from your PC, you’ve removed Internet Explorer’s ability to display Flash content, such as YouTube videos. Despite Flash’s footprint on the web getting dramatically reduced by the popularity of iPhones and iPads, which don’t support the plug-in (thankfully), there’s still quite a bit of Flash content out there that hasn’t been updated to modern standards.
With Google Chrome, you don’t need to have a standalone version installed to view this content. Chrome comes with a built-in Flash player that is constantly updated by Google. That also means you can say goodbye to those annoying pop-ups prompting you to update Flash every 20 minutes.
More importantly, Chrome’s version of Flash is “sandboxed” – a fancy geek term meaning it’s completely isolated from the rest of your PC. If a piece of malware penetrates sandboxed software, its reach into the system is restricted to that app and nothing else. With a standalone version of Flash (like the one Internet Explorer uses), a security hole allows access to the entire Windows operating system. That’s how you end up with a screen like my friend’s, above.
Use SumatraPDF instead of Adobe Reader
With Adobe Reader uninstalled, we need a new way to view PDF files. SumatraPDF is a free, fast, and lightweight PDF viewer which we’ll use instead.
Once you’ve downloaded and installed it, we need to set it as the default program for PDF files. Launch SumatraPDF from the Start menu, go to the Settings menu and choose Options, and click the button to make it your default PDF reader.
Stop Paying for an Anti-Virus Subscription
There’s no need to waste money on an expensive anti-virus subscription such as Norton or McAfee. For virtually of our clients, we use Microsoft Security Essentials, which is a free, lightweight, and unobtrusive anti-virus program developed by Microsoft. It does a fine job of protecting a clean PC and it does so without eating up a lot of resources or bugging you with a lot of vague pop-ups.
That said, if you want an extra level of protection, we recommend paying $24.95 (one-time purchase, not a subscription) for a professional version of Malwarebytes Anti-Malware. Every IT guy on the planet uses the free version of Malwarebytes to clean up a computer that’s already infected. The paid version runs silently in the background alongside Microsoft Security Essentials, using its powerful scanning engine in real-time to prevent malware from putting roots down in your PC. It’s not perfect either, but of all the things you could spend money on, it’s the best option.
Bottom line: no anti-virus program is 100% perfect, so why spend a bunch of money on one? I’ve seen as many infected PCs running paid versions of AVG, Norton, and McAfee as I have PCs that had no anti-virus installed at all.
But the infected PCs I’ve dealt with have all had at least a few these things in common: Windows updates were not installed, Internet Explorer was the primary web browser, and Flash, Reader, and Java were not up-to-date. The measures taken in this guide, combined with user awareness and education, are far more effective than spending a bunch of money on heavily-advertised software.