The Myth of Anti-Virus Software

Ten years ago, computer viruses were being written by bored computer hackers eager to prove their skills in circumventing (what was almost always) Windows security. Today it is about profit. Viruses are no longer about showing off to the world. The best ones are the ones you will never see. Virus writers today would like their software to reside quietly on your desktop, silently sending back to their hidden masters, your passwords, credit card details and generally enough information to profile your spending habits or even steal your identity.

In response to this increasing threat, computer users look to Anti-virus Security Companies such as Symantec and MacAfee to give them the tools they need to protect said users information.

Anti-virus programs, and their slightly less understood cousins, Anti-Spyware programs, come in different sizes, shapes and at different price points.

So which one do you get? How much should you expect to spend and how much protection are you actually getting?

While you can walk into a store such as Future Shop, Best Buy or Circuit City and drop over 100 CAD on Symantec, MacAfee or Kasperski, the truth is you don’t need to do that.

On the less expensive (read: free) side you have offerings from Microsoft, AVG, Avast, etc. Microsoft’s product, Microsoft Security Essentials is downloadable from Microsoft’s website  and provides a well integrated, lean Antivirus experience which I have actually seen successfully deal with threats effectively. AVG and Avast offer free version as well as paid versions of their software and generally at a lower price point than Symantec (aka Norton) Anti-Virus. The Free version is usually good enough for the average end user. ‘Why’, you ask? Is it because Viruses are easy to deal with? Not really. Most Antivirus programs are the third tool I would reach for when dealing with an infected computer. That is not to say you shouldn’t have one but there are other means which are, in my opinion, more efficacious than Anti-Virus.

Along with Anti-Spyware programs such as Malwarebyte’s Anti-Malware (aka MBAM) or Spybot: Search and Destroy there is a program built into Windows that has saved more computers than any Anti-Virus software. It’s called System Restore. As of Windows XP, going back 10 years now, Microsoft included the ability in Windows to restore certain elements of the Operating System back to a previous save point. Since modern Viruses rely heavily on their ability to compromise the Operating System itself, in order to continuously re-install itself. The newer Windows 7 continues this trend an is even hardier than it’s predecessor.

You may have heard of “Trojans”, a type of Virus which keeps coming back even after lengthy scans and subsequent removals. This is the way to get around them. First by restoring the Operating System to a point where it won’t re-install the Trojan. Once the computer is restored to a previous (Presumably Virus free) configuration state, tools such as Spybot, MBAM and MS Security Essentials can go to work.
A word about fake Anti-virus software.

This type of Virus is flashy. It will arrive in a flurry of colorful pop-ups and authentic looking scans quickly informing you that, despite your best attempts to protect yourself, you have caught many viruses and the only way to remove them is to Buy This Software. Often these programs appear to be part of Windows. In all cases they are a scam. When you see this digital stick-up artist step out from behind your browser and tell “You Money or your Data” you should follow these steps.

1. Reboot into Safe Mode.
2. Use the System Restore tool, selectig a date well before you think you may have been infected. .
3. Reboot into safe mode then run Antispyware and Antivirus software.
4. Go back to work.

When I said that some computer viruses are unseen, silently sending their stolen data to an untraceable server, somewhere in Eastern Europe, those aren’t the kinds of Viruses you will see normally. They are, however, the reason you should run Antivirus and Anti-Spyware scans even when you don’t see anything happening with your computer.. For this reason you need to run some sort of Antivirus and Anti-Spyware every night. What you don’t need is expensive and often ineffectual software such as Norton 360 or MacAffee Anti-virus Suite.