What you really need to know about viruses and spyware – Part 1: What’s the difference?

Lately, it seems viruses and spyware have been surging forward in both quantity and severity.  Something tells me this problem is not specific to Naples, Florida; virus infections are on the rise and there’s no end in sight.  Just how scared should you be, and is there anything specific you need to DO to protect your computer network and business data?Computer network virus

Part 1 of this series deals with the difference between viruses and spyware/adware, and the capabilities of both to annoy you, and cause you to lose productivity.  They have similar behavior, but are not quite the same.  Viruses and spyware are software programs that are automated, and once installed (usually unintentionally) will continue to perform their evil functions without any further interaction from their creators.  In this way, they are different from getting “hacked” or otherwise having your data compromised. (Which I’ll probably discuss in a future article at some point!)

Viruses are malicious software programs that are written specifically to destroy your data or crash your computer.  They are basically the digital version of vandalism, created by people who just want to destroy something because they can.  Most virus creators work alone, sometimes the stereotypical geek living in mom’s basement, sometimes by less likely candidates.  They were a big threat back in the late ‘80’s and ‘90’s when personal computers were in their infancy, but now less than 5% of all infections are true viruses.

The other 95% of infections are spyware or adware.  These programs are created for one purpose and one purpose only; to make money.  The creators of the software write code that somehow tricks you into giving up credit card or bank information, which the coders then use to finance the next phase of their operation. The most typical method spyware uses to trick you is by mimicking a familiar program, such as an AntiVirus program, and then telling you there are problems and directing you to a website where you can “purchase” the program to remove the issues.  Spyware does not usually “steal” your credit card or banking information.  This information is encrypted, and takes a high level of sophistication and expertise to hack.  Spyware usually focuses on trickery or fishing for information in order to get you to unwittingly give up your financial information.

Computer virus, Naples FLSpyware takes many forms.  I have seen it mimic the familiar yellow color scheme of the Norton products, and the blues used by Microsoft.  Sometimes it deliberately slows down the computer or comes up with error messages on the screen to further convince you that your computer is having problems so that you’re more likely to pay for the “solution”.  Obviously, you should NEVER give these websites your credit card information, as they don’t provide the solution anyway; usually they just take your money and run.

Since spyware has taken the concept of a virus and essentially given it corporate funding, this type of software is usually written by a highly-skilled team of people who are sharing the profits.  This can make spyware very difficult to detect and repair, as the different versions and variants are relentless and sophisticated due to the amount of time and manpower that are dedicated to their creation.  Most current-generation spyware comes from Thailand, as they currently have lax laws about malicious software creation, and money laundering is easier in that country, but many other Asian countries produce spyware as well.

Knowing that most spyware-producing countries are in Asia can actually be helpful.  Have you ever seen an error message like the following pop up on your computer?

“SpyPro software fighter detected very bad malicious code steeler on your computer PC.  To avoiding infection please take immediate actions to correct!  All you’re data is possible to infect unless you register you’re software!”

I’m obviously exaggerating, but I see messages like this all the time containing misspelled words, fragmented sentences, and obvious badly translated tenses and misuse of homonyms.  If you ever see an error message or software program that seems like it was poorly translated into English, then you’ve probably got a spyware infection, and should call in the cavalry right away.  (For an actual screenshot example of this, try this link:  http://yfrog.com/n1uezvj)

Until the government finds a better way of tracing the money and nailing some of these guys, I think we’re just going to have to live with spyware for now.  Much of it can be removed by professionals, but sometimes an operating system reinstall is required to completely eradicate it.  The best bet is to avoid getting infected in the first place, which is what part 2 of this series will discuss.

Paul Nicodemi

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