Fighting Zombies For Real

We fight zombies every day. Really. No, not the George Romero kind. We deal with electronic zombies.

Thanks to the prevalence of “always on” Internet connections and the lack of security precautions on the part of the owners of a large population of computers using these connections, the Internet is crawling with zombies.

They’ll suck out your brains!

Internet zombies are like movie zombies in a few ways:

  • They’re after your brains: Zombies are responsible for a major portion of the mindless in-box pollution known as spam. If they get their teeth into you, you’ll start doing stupid things like buying pharmaceuticals from anonymous internet addresses.
  • They don’t respond to reason: In the movies you can pound on zombies with a baseball bat and they hardly notice it. Similarly, if you reply to email from a zombie it only encourages them.
  • They’re contagious: Besides sending spam zombies also try to recruit other zombies. Once a machine becomes a zombie, the virus animating it will often look through email contacts and network connections available to its host computer in order to find other computers to infect.

Fortunately, Internet zombies are different from movie zombies in one very important respect: They don’t kill you!

So how do I keep from becoming a zombie?

First of all, don’t hide out in an empty shopping mall. That never works. Instead, try the following:

  • Make sure your anti-virus (AV) software stays up to date. What? You don’t have anti-virus software? It’s probably too late for you then. (We’ll touch on how to be brought back from the “living dead” in a bit.)
  • Use a good spyware scanner to get rid of other forms of malware (your AV software may include this). See links below.
  • Use a firewall to protect your home network. This can be software or hardware and probably already exists in your router or operating system.
  • Browse cautiously. Most zombie viruses crawl onto your computer from malicious or infected websites.  Never click on links from spam messages and pay attention to any warnings your browser or AV software may give you about infected websites.
  • Be careful with email attachments. Hopefully that AV software that you’re so carefully keeping up to date also scans your email as it downloads. If not, or if you’re using a web-based email client to view your email, be very careful about attachments. Don’t open executable files (files with a .exe extension, MS Office files etc.).

Each of the above actions will help ward off the zombie curse. Using them all together is even better. Sacrificing chickens doesn’t help (in case you were wondering).

How do I know if my computer has become a zombie?

Well, if it’s snarling at you and trying to bite the top of your head off to get at your brains that’s a pretty good sign. Since this is probably not really going to happen, the only sure way to know is if a virus or spyware scan reports the existence of malware on your computer. However, there are some indicators to look out for:

  • Your computer becomes less responsive (slower).
  • Your friends send you angry emails telling you to stop trying to get them to buy Viagra.
  • Your computer seems very busy when you’re not using it (hard drive light flashing, modem activity light staying on).

Again, the only way to know is a virus scan. If your computer is acting weird get it scanned.

Can I survive a zombie bite?

Probably, although it may take some effort.

If you’re really lucky the virus will be mild and not prevent you from installing AV software after you’re infected. In this case, the AV software should get it. Unfortunately, this is a best case scenario.

If it’s an old virus you might get away with buying a commercial AV software package that includes a “boot-disk” that can start your computer without loading the virus. The problem with this is the commercial disk will only be good up to the day the CD was burned and new viruses come out all the time. (This is something of a financial risk, unless you intend to continue to use the software after you get rid if the virus so make sure it’s a good one.)

Otherwise, it’s probably best to get professional help. A good computer technician will usually have or be able to create a “boot-disk” with current AV software on it and clean your computer. Don’t be surprised if they find multiple viruses and other malware programs.

In an absolute worst case scenario you might have to wipe your computer and start over. If you already have backups you’ll need to check them for viruses before restoring any of your files. If not, you’ll need to make backups of important files and then scan them before restoring them to your newly clean computer.

The death of a thousand cuts

All of the above discuss how to deal with direct attacks from zombies trying to recruit your computer. The second attack vector from zombies is spam. If you are not using a good spam filter you will be receiving tons of email from zombies every day. Fortunately, any decent spam filter (we especially like ours) will weed out most of it. Again, don’t click links in spam in your quarantine report or that gets past your filter.

AV Software

AVG Free – AVG provides an excellent free version for non-commercial users and if the free version is any indication, the paid versions are probably really good too.

Avast Free – Avast free also appears to work really well and, although we don’t have quite as much experience with it, we do know people who are very satisfied with it.

Anti-Spyware Tools

Ad-Aware Free – An excellent malware scanner free to non-commercial users. Best used in conjunction with at least one other anti-spyware tool.

Malwarebytes – Another excellent free malware scanner. We recommend using both of these as things might get by on the edges of both but using both together will provide more comprehensive spyware removal.

Note: The free versions of both of these scanners must be run manually. The paid versions provide scheduling and automated scans.

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