There are so many myths, misconceptions and just plain old lies about viruses that it's often hard for anybody to know what to think. Let's examine a few of the biggest myths about viruses and debunk each of them.
Photo by TedRheingold
A few weeks ago, we explained how to understand the difference between viruses, trojans, worms and other malware, and today we'll walk through some of the common myths about malware and debunk them.
Myth 1: Firewalls Protect You From Viruses
It's surprising how many people don't realise this, but your firewall is not going to protect you from a virus, trojan or spyware — in fact, the only type of malware that you'll definitely be helping prevent is a worm, because they travel over the network. And sure, theoretically an outbound firewall will alert you when a malware application is sending data back, but that's a false sense of security, since once you are infected, a clever virus can simply disable the firewall.
Don't misunderstand, we aren't recommending that you go and disable your firewall — in fact you should keep it enabled at all times, especially when you're on an insecure network like a coffee shop. If you aren't sure what firewall to choose, we recommend you don't pay for Windows security and use the built-in one, but you can also check out our list of the best Windows firewalls. Photo by lloydi
Myth 2: Viruses Can Physically Damage Your Hardware
Sure, a virus like CIH can infect your firmware or BIOS, but the hardware itself is unaffected. Rumours of viruses causing your PC to go crazy and explode are unfounded and a little ridiculous. If your computer ends up infected by one of these more dangerous BIOS-level viruses, you'll probably have to take the computer to somebody that can wipe the BIOS manually, or replace it, but software viruses aren't going to murder your hardware.
Myth 3: My Computer Is Throwing A Lot of Errors, So It Must Have A Virus
Files can get corrupted on their own, without the involvement of any viruses — whether it's through a bug in the software, a bad sector on your hard drive, faulty memory, or ironically, a conflict with your antivirus software. So the next time you get a warning about being unable to open a file, scan it with your antivirus software before you accuse your computer of having a virus. Photo by berkielynn
Myth 4: I Can Just Reinstall Windows And Copy Everything Back
I can't count the number of times I've seen somebody reinstall Windows on their PC after a virus infection, only to copy their files from a backup drive and then re-infect themselves all over again. You need to make sure that your documents and data have been scanned for and are free from viruses, especially after an infection.
To help prevent these problems in the first place, make sure that you've got an antivirus package installed and real-time protection enabled. If you aren't sure which one to choose, we recommend the free Microsoft Security Essentials, but if you want to shop around, take a look at one of these five popular antivirus applications.
Myth 5: I Can Always Trust My Antivirus Application To Steer Me In The Right Direction
More often than you'd think, your antivirus software is just plain wrong, and especially when you're using a scanner that employs heuristic scanning to check if a file might have a virus. Do you remember the recent McAfee fiasco? Be sure to check out our guide to understanding if your download really has a virus.
Myth 6: The Blue Screen Of Death Means I've Got A Virus, Right?
While some viruses can certainly cause an appearance by the feared blue screen of death, the majority of the time a BSOD is caused by bad drivers or faulty hardware. It's very rarely a virus, and assuming that it is will increase your troubleshooting time.
Your best bet when dealing with the blue screen of death is to disable the automatic reboot so you have time to write down the error message. Once you've done so, chances are good that Google will help you out with an answer to what it could be. If your system is stable enough to actually use, you can also use the free, portable system utility BlueScreenView to help troubleshoot previous BSOD errors.
Myth 7: Windows Is The Only Platform With Malware
While it's true that almost all viruses are targeted at Windows, it doesn't mean that Windows is the only platform with malware issues. There's been a recent increase in trojans targeting Macs, usually through pirated software cracks (same as Windows), and the trend will probably continue as Macs become more popular. And since trojans exploit human error rather than a security hole, all platforms are susceptible to them.
If you're using a Linux or Mac computer, you can protect yourself by following many of the same rules that you would for Windows: Don't install software from places you don't know, be wary anytime a piece of software asks you for your password and avoid installing "codecs" from porn sites. Some simple common sense will keep you from being the victim of a malware attack.
Myth 8: This Damn Virus Went Browsing For Porn — It Wasn't Me!
I always get a good laugh when somebody brings a PC over to me and tells me that it's infected with viruses — and then they proceed to tell me that those darn viruses opened up all these sleazy porn sites, and they have no idea how it happened. If you've spent any time in the tech help world, you've probably heard the same thing before.
Sure, you might accidentally see a porn ad popup if you don't have a popup blocker in your browser and you're already browsing sleazy sites, but viruses don't browse through porn sites, people do. It's usually at this stage that I point out that just like the people on the screen, anything downloaded from a porn site is much more likely to contain a virus.
Myth 9: Viruses Can Infect Humans Or Alien Spacecrafts
Yeah, so this one is a little ridiculous, but there are just too many movies and TV shows that have a plot dependent on the idea of humans infecting an alien spacecraft with a virus that spreads from one ship to another, until it finally infects the mothership and kills them all. I mean, really? Is that the best plot they can come up with? We can barely even share files between Macs and PCs without problems, much less infect a human being or an alien spacecraft with a virus. To quote Chef: "That doesn't make any goddamned sense!"
What kind of virus tall tales have you heard during your time in the computer era? Share your funny moments in the comments.