The first time I realized that my personal computer had been infected by a virus, my stomach dropped.
If it had happened to my computer at work, I would have called tech support and the problem would have been handled by someone else. It might not have been fixed easily or quickly, but it wouldn't have been my problem.
But when it came to my personal computer, my options were limited. I could try to figure it out myself, call a professional or beg a teenager for help. (I finally begged a teenager, who didn’t roll his eyes too much.)
To a computer user whose skills don't go much further than basic Web browsing, a malware infection can be frightening. Even seeing an alert that your anti-virus software has detected something serious can be enough to rattle your calm.
However, ridding yourself of a virus or other malware can be simpler than you realize.
The first step is to detect whether or not your computer truly has been infected.
"Many individuals become concerned that their computer is infected with a virus when their system begins to perform erratically, or otherwise not function normally, such as [when having] no Internet access or lots of pop-ups," said Dodi Glenn, product manager for GFI VIPRE Antivirus in Clearwater, Fla.
A malware infection can often be detected or classified based on a few telling behaviors, such as:
— The new software was installed without your permission, such as through a browser exploit, or drive-by download, in which the end user doesn’t actually perform the installation.
— The new software disables your anti-virus software.
— You notice that your browser redirects search queries, common URLs and other sites. (For example, typing "Google.com" will take you to a different website.)
— The new software automatically reinstalls itself after you attempt to remove it.
So if you believe you do have an infection, then what should you do?
Reboot your computer into Safe Mode and run a full scan with your anti-virus software, said Glenn. Your anti-virus software will alert you to any virus or malware problems. It may also delete or quarantine the problem.
If that doesn't work, take note of the type of malware you have. Use a different, clean computer to find instructions online on how to best eliminate the problem.
If all that seems too complicated, don’t hesitate to ask a computer-savvy friend for help. He or she can talk you through it in person or on the phone.
The important thing is to always perform these removal steps while in Safe Mode, which uses the minimal amount of programs and applications.
Prevention is the best cure
Once your computer is clean, you'll want to keep it that way.
First, make sure you've installed the latest updates for your anti-virus software. Better yet, let those updates happen automatically.
Then you'll want to make sure you have a current backup of your entire system. You can either use a cloud-based backup system, or regularly save everything to an external hard drive — whatever works best for you, as long as it allows you to access your data if you do lose something to malware.
Just make sure anything you save is virus-free. You don’t want to save a virus to your backup.
"It is a good idea to have a bootable DVD with Linux or some other OS installed on it, as well as an empty thumb drive or external hard disk," said Daniel Ayoub, security expert at Dell SonicWALL in San Jose.
"You can download and create a bootable Linux DVD for free, and it's relatively easy to do," Ayoub said. "I recommend using Ubuntu. Download the ISO file and burn it to a blank DVD. Keep this disc handy in case you ever get infected."
To keep your system clean, it isn't just your anti-virus software that needs to be regularly updated, Ayoub said.
"Make sure that software applications, including the operating system, are always kept up to date," he said. "Whenever you get those annoying pop-ups from [Adobe] Flash Player or Windows telling you that a new version or update is available, be sure to install it.
"Those updates are usually security enhancements that will patch bugs which can be used to exploit your system and install malware.”
Of course, don't forget the basic safety rules: Don't click on unknown links in email messages or in social media, and question anything you are asked to download in order to access a website.
Most importantly, don’t fall for fake anti-virus scams, which appear when an on-screen pop-up window says your computer is at risk and you need to click on a link right away to scan your system.
"The best thing to do when presented with a fake AV warning is to close the tab or the Web browser," said Julien Sobrier, senior security researcher for Zscaler ThreatLabZ in San Jose. "A website cannot scan a computer, so any security warning seen on any website has to be fake."