Do I need anti-virus software?
I have an unorthodox strategy for dealing with computer viruses. It doesn't involve the use of firewalls or anti-virus software. But if everyone understood the simple virus safety tips I'll outline here, the virus writers would get very bored very quickly.
Sooner or later you WILL receive an email that contains a computer virus. Perhaps you got one today with M-y-D-o-o-m attached. But if you understand a few simple concepts about email and viruses, there is really nothing to worry about. I've been using email for twenty years, and I receive hundreds of messages daily. Even though I get viruses in my inbox every day, I've NEVER been affected by one.
If you take a few minutes to read and apply the following concepts to your own email handling, you can have the same protection and peace of mind without buying any expensive anti-virus software. (There ARE some good reasons for having anti-virus protection, and I'll mention those later.)
---> FACTS ABOUT COMPUTER VIRUSES
If you keep your web browser and email software updated, you CANNOT get a virus just by opening or reading your email. This is true even if your Cousin Vinny has a friend who swears it happened to his neighbor in a major city, and his wife was abducted in a mall parking lot. Many widespread virus hoaxes have circulated the Net for years, claiming that if you open an email with a certain Subject line, then untold horrors will beset your computer. It's just not true.
A virus cannot leap out of your inbox and infect your computer without some help from you! Here are some facts you should know:
+ Some emails have attached files, in addition to the message body
+ Email attachments can be good (photos, music) or bad (a virus)
+ It is safe to open and read the message body of ANY email, even if that email has an attached virus.
[ NOTE: Before you write to tell me that some viruses can be activated simply by opening an email, PLEASE remember I said "IF YOU KEEP YOUR BROWSER AND EMAIL SOFTWARE UPDATED." If you have an old, unpatched copy of Microsoft Outlook, then all bets are off. ]
In order for a computer virus to affect you, it requires some explicit action on your part. Let me explain with an analogy: Imagine someone has mailed you a loaded gun. You can't get hurt just by looking at your mailbox. You can't get hurt just by taking the package out of the mailbox. You CAN get shot if you take the gun out of the package, aim it at your head, and pull the trigger.
---> HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
So what is the "explicit action" required to activate a virus that arrives in an email attachment? It's as simple as clicking on the attachment. Depending on your email program, this will either save the file to your hard disk or activate the virus immediately. It really is that simple... don't click on attachments and your inbox will be safe from computer viruses.
How can you tell the difference between good attachments and those that contain a virus? In some cases, you can't. Anti-virus software may help, but if the virus is very recent, your anti-virus package may not be able to detect it. Case in point: The recent S-o-B-i-g and M-y-D-o-o-m viruses infected thousands of computers worldwide in just a few hours, even though they had anti-virus software.
Here are some practical tips to help you decide whether or not to open an attachment:
+ If you get an email with an attachment from someone you don't know, delete it. You don't take candy from strangers, and you should behave the same with email attachments.
+ If you get an email with an attachment from a friend, don't assume it's harmless! Many viruses spread by automatically sending themselves to the addresses found in the victim's address book, and they often include something in the message body that looks like a personal message from your friend.
+ Unless you are very computer savvy, and you can tell for sure from the name of the attached file that it's not a virus, then CALL or EMAIL your friend and ask if they meant to send you an attachment.
+ If they say yes, AND they can explain what it is (photos of the family picnic, etc.) it should be safe to open the attachment.
+ If they say no, then obviously you should delete the message and let them know THEY might be infected with a virus. It's also quite likely that the virus didn't come from your friend at all. Many viruses spoof the "From" address in the emails they spew out, so it's hard to learn the true origin.
SEMI-TECHNICAL NOTE: Take care when checking the filename of an attachment as a guide to whether or not you should open it. The standard (bad) behavior of Windows is to hide the file extension (the last three characters) when filenames are displayed. Some virus writers take advantage of this and create files with names such as HAPPY.JPG.EXE, which will display as HAPPY.JPG. It appears to be a harmless JPG (photo) file, but is really a nasty virus.
To force Windows to display the entire filename, open My Computer then click on Tools/Folder Options/View (on some systems, click on View/Folder Options/View) then UNcheck the "Hide file extensions for known file types" option.
---> IN A NUTSHELL
If you remember nothing else about computer viruses, try to keep these three facts in mind:
+ You can't get a virus just by reading your email.
+ A virus cannot attack without your help.
+ Never open an attachment unless you're sure it was sent on purpose, and the sender can explain what it is.
---> AM I ANTI-ANTI-VIRUS?
Am I saying that anti-virus software is useless? For many people, yes! If you follow the guidelines in this article, and you handle only attachments that contain photos, anti-virus software is a waste of money and can make your computer slower and less reliable.
If you deal with word processor files or spreadsheets, if you download software, use a "file-sharing" program such as Kazaa, your computer is shared by others (especially children) who are prone to clicking, opening or downloading almost anything, despite repeated warnings, threats and knuckle-whacking, or if you have a nagging suspicion that Cousin Vinny might be right after all... then you SHOULD use an anti-virus program.
I don't discount the fact that people do make mistakes. If using anti-virus software makes you feel safer, if you understand that it's not a GUARANTEE to keep you safe, if you don't mind spending the money, then maybe it's right for you. You can find a bunch of popular anti-virus packages here:
But be aware that it can only protect you from the viruses it KNOWS about. I've heard from LOTS of people who faithfully kept their anti-virus software updated, but they still got a virus because of careless email handling.
You should also check for email, browser and operating system software updates at least once a month. (If you use Windows, you should have Windows Update take care of this automatically.) Older versions may have security flaws that allow unauthorized access to your system. Here are some links that may help you to find new versions, upgrades or security patches:
+ WINDOWS UPDATE - http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com
+ FIREFOX - http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/
+ NETSCAPE - http://home.netscape.com/smartupdate
+ EUDORA EMAIL SOFTWARE - http://www.eudora.com
---> MORE HELPFUL RESOURCES
Learn about computer virus myths, hoaxes, and urban legends at Rob Rosenberger's excellent Vmyths.com site.
Try Trend Micro's Free Online Virus Scanner.
Symantec AV Center offers information on the lastest virus threats, removal tools, and a Virus Encyclopedia.
I understand that some people will disagree with my advice about the best way to protect yourself from computer viruses. But I believe that education is the key, rather than software that gives a false sense of security.
Posted by Bob Rankin on 30 May 2005
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Do I need anti-virus software? (Posted: 30 May 2005)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved