When you’re online, you expose your vulnerability to malicious virus that have been growing in virulence and ferocity over the last few years. These program codes have gone beyond mere annoyances with the worst kinds disabling your PC, but they have become portals for remotely perpetuating more sinister activity that can secretly hack into sites, mount denial of services or steal confidential and personal data for fraudulent financial gain at your expense.

Short for malicious software, malware is as old as software itself, and  programmers have been authoring it for as long as they have been authoring legitimate software. There are many reasons why a programmer might create malware. These reasons vary from simple pranks and experiments to serious organized Internet crime. Malware exists in many forms, most of which you’ve probably already heard of. The most common types of malware are viruses, trojans, worms, spyware and zombies.

Computers that are the most susceptible to being hacked are those who do not meet minimum security standards. Malware can be unintentionally downloaded from other programs, files, or email attachments.

How do you avoid this?

The only way to completely secure your computer is to disconnect it from the Internet, but this obviously isn’t helpful, so you must take as many reasonable precautions that you can. To ensure that you have the minimum security standards, you should have:

Turn on your firewall

A firewall can help protect your computer by preventing hackers or malicious software from gaining access to it. A firewall is software or hardware that checks information coming from the Internet or a network and then either turns it away or allows it to pass through to your computer, depending on your firewall settings. In this way, a firewall can help prevent hackers and malicious software from gaining access to your computer.

Use a reliable antivirus program / Automatic updates turned on

Viruses, worms, and Trojan horses are programs created by hackers that use the Internet to infect vulnerable computers. Viruses and worms can replicate themselves from computer to computer, while Trojan horses enter a computer by hiding inside an apparently legitimate program, such as a screen saver. Destructive viruses, worms, and Trojan horses can erase information from your hard disk or completely disable your computer. Others don’t cause direct damage, but worsen your computer’s performance and stability.

Antivirus programs scan e‑mail and other files on your computer for viruses, worms, and Trojan horses. If one is found, the antivirus program either quarantines (isolates) it or deletes it entirely before it damages your computer and files.

Because new viruses are identified every day, it’s important to use an antivirus program with an automatic update capability. When the program is updated, it adds new viruses to its list of viruses to check for, helping to protect your computer from new attacks. If the list of viruses is out of date, your computer is vulnerable to new threats. Updates usually require an annual subscription fee. Keep the subscription current to receive regular updates.

Use spyware and other malware protection

When it comes to malware specifically, there are a number of solutions in use today that attempt to address the threat.  While the predominant approach is to protect the web server, there is an emerging, consumer-focused trend toward adding a layer of protection at the website level. Specifically, website anti-malware scanning has emerged as an effective supplement to traditional web server security. Anti-malware scanning is typically a cloud-based service that conducts regular scans of customer-facing web pages for hidden malware. The service alerts website owners if malware is found on their web pages. These top-level scans are simple, low-impact, and incredibly easy to implement—especially for small businesses. Website anti-malware scanning opens a new category of web security in trust services, adding a visible indicator of trust.

What’s the worst thing I can do if I do have malware? Ignoring it. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. In fact, it will help spread the virus to other places on the Internet (i.e. your friends and family). Avoid being exposed by following these tips:

Tips for safely using e‑mail and the web

Use caution when opening email attachments. E‑mail attachments (files

attached to e‑mail messages) are a primary source of virus infection. Never open an attachment from someone you don’t know. If you know the sender but weren’t expecting an attachment, verify that the sender actually sent the attachment before you open it.

Guard your personal information carefully. If a website asks for a credit card number, bank information, or other personal information, make sure you trust the website and verify that its transaction system is secure.

Be careful when clicking hyperlinks in email messages. Hyperlinks (links that open websites when you click them) are often used as part of phishing and spyware scams, but they can also transmit viruses. Only click links in e‑mail messages that you trust.

Only install add-ons from websites that you trust. Web browser add-ons allow webpages to display things like toolbars, stock tickers, video, and animation. However, add-ons can also install spyware or other malicious software. If a website asks you to install an add-on, make sure that you trust it before doing so.