Ransomware and spyware and malware, Oh My

Computer safety is front page news these days. Over the past couple months the cyber-world has faced several major threats. In May 2017 the WannaCry ransomware infected nearly 200,000 computers in 150 countries, and just a month later is attacked again by a similar bug named Petya. It can be a bit intimidating with viruses, malware, spyware, Trojans and other types of malicious software trying to infect you systems. In this article, I’ll explain the differences between the various computer attacks and help you find your way on the Yellow Brick Road of computer security.

Malware is a term created from combining the two words ‘malicious’ and ‘software’. This is a broad all-encompassing term used to describe any harmful software and includes everything in the list below.

A virus is computer code that attaches itself to another program or file allowing it to spread from computer to computer causing varying degrees of damage.  They usually sit dormant until activated by someone. A virus cannot stand alone. It’s just a segment of code that inserted into a valid program on your system and runs when the host program runs.

A worm is similar to a virus, but it is a stand-alone program. Once infecting a computer system it can automatically spread to other computers via existing email and contact lists found on that computer. There’s no need to double click a worm to get it going. I runs and spreads automatically.

A Trojan-Horse was named after the tactic used in the tale Trojan War where the Greeks attacked Troy by sneaking into the walled city in a large wooden horse.  The digital counterpart is a program that claims to do one thing, but does something else. You might download and install software that claims to clean your system, but behind the scenes it intentionally slows it down.

Spyware is software that usually does no harm to your system, but just tracks your actions—potentially recording your browsing habits and keystrokes and sending that info back to others. At its best, spyware is just annoying and used to prompt pop-up ads, but at its worst spyware is a path to identity theft.

Ransomware takes malicious software to a new level. As the name implies it takes your computer system hostage and promises to restore your files once a ransom has been paid. Petya is the latest of such attacks and in just a few days has spread to 64 countries infecting more than 12,500 computers.

So how do you protect yourself?  It’s not as easy as just clicking your heels together and thinking of a safe place. It’s impossible to be 100 percent protected from everything, but there are a few steps you can take to thwart most attacks.

Don’t open attachments.  Never open an attachment unless you know ahead of time what it is.  Even emails from your friends can contain malware. If you get an attachment from a friend, contact them directly and ask if they sent it.

Keep your operating system up to date. Those who create viruses look for vulnerabilities in operating systems (OS), and when found, they write harmful programs that take advantage of those loopholes. Operating systems like Windows XP have known vulnerabilities, and since Microsoft no longer supports XP malware has a free pass into those systems.

Keep your anti-virus up to date.  Most of the antivirus software out there (both free and paid) work well. The problem is many people do not update their virus definitions often enough.

Don’t connect to public Wi-Fi. If you absolutely have to use a public connection make sure you set it as ‘public’ when you set it up, that way your OS knows to lock down certain ports into your computer. When it comes to connecting to the internet there really is no place like home.

Staying safe is not difficult, but you must keep security in mind when using your connected devices.