Thursday, November 1, 2007

Fix Your School Computer and Prevent Problems for FREE

UPDATED 12/25/08
Is your school computer running extremely slow (or not at all)? When you try to use Internet Explorer, are there multiple toolbars that you don't remember installing that ironically have no useful tools? Do you have popups, popunders and unexplained new annoyances in the system tray (the little icons next to the clock) no matter what you're doing?

Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news: you have spyware and/or viruses. The good news: You can probably clean up everything by yourself, today, for free.

The sad truth about commercial antivirus (McAfee, Norton, etc), spyware removal (anything you can buy at a store), and firewall software (like the one Windows now has built-in) is that they usually don't catch everything (or anything). Even worse, these programs are so big and bloated that they make your system slower than the threats they are supposed to protect you from!

Even if your system is running smoothly, you need to prevent future problems by following all of the steps below. Obviously you can only do this if you have administrator privileges on your computer, which means you can install software yourself. If you don't have the ability to do that, you probably don't have a lot of these problems to begin with, but you may need to ask if your system seems slow or buggy.

Step 1: Get Rid of Spyware

First, download these two free programs (you'll need both):

Close anything like Internet Explorer or Word that you might be running before you start.

Install Ad-Aware first. Follow the installation instructions, and click "OK" when it asks you to update your "definitions" (the list of bad stuff it will search for). When it has finished, start a full system scan. This may take a while to finish, especially if there's a lot of bad stuff on your computer. When the scan is done, Ad-Aware makes a weird noise and a little flashing bug appears if it found something bad. Right click on the list, click Select All, and then click Next to remove the threats. Close the program. [Ad-Aware Product Manual (PDF)]

Then, install SpyBot S&D. You will have to click through a similar installation process and approve updates. When you're done installing and updating, click Check for problems to run the scan. When it's finished, click Fix selected problems and approve removing the bad items. [SpyBot installation tutorial]

These two programs compliment each other; SpyBot will find things that Ad-Aware didn't, and vice versa. Sometimes these programs will say they have to reset the computer or scan it the next time you start up. This is no problem. In fact, after you finish the rest of the steps, I recommend running both of these programs again to make sure every last problem is fixed.

Step 2: Get Rid of Viruses

Spyware and viruses are different types of threats, so they require different types of programs to get rid of them. If you already have a virus scanner like Norton or McAfee and can uninstall it, do it (this goes for your home computer too). Replace them with one of these more effective free options:

Install one of them, following the directions and allowing it to update if needed. You might need to restart the computer and let it scan at startup, just like the spyware removers. Both of these programs are fairly easy to use and don't slow down your computer, all the while keeping you safe. Unlike the spyware removers, this program will keep running all the time to help fend off threats. [AVG User Manual - Avast! Installation Guide (both in PDF)]

Step 3: Install a Firewall

Most people still seem to think that as long as they don't visit certain websites or open certain emails that there's no way they'll get anything. Unfortunately, you don't have to do anything for a lot of bad things to happen, because as long as your computer is connected to the Internet, is it vulnerable.

To protect yourself, you need a firewall, a program that blocks access unless you approve it. Having your computer always on the Internet without a firewall is like leaving your house with the doors and windows unlocked: anybody can "walk" right in. The anti-virus and anti-spyware programs only help after you've been infected, so you need to protect yourself from ever getting infected as well.

The best firewall available is also free: ZoneAlarm Firewall.

Once you install it, it will ask you to approve any program trying to access the Internet for the first time, and will block incoming requests from computers trying to connect to yours from afar. The warnings might be annoying sometimes, but they're not that frequent and they're the best protection. As a bonus, even though it will be running all the time, ZoneAlarm doesn't slow down your computer like more expensive security software will. [ZoneAlarm support and user guides]

Step 4: Other Tips to Prevent Future Problems

  • Keep your anti-virus and firewall programs running at all times.
  • Run both spyware removers and a full anti-virus scan at least once a month, or any time your computer seems a little buggy.
  • Spybot S&D has an option to protect you from programs that try to change Internet Explorer's settings called TeaTimer. It runs in the background and doesn't have any popups or icons. Turn it on. Read more about TeaTimer here.
  • Better yet, replace Internet Explorer with Mozilla Firefox. Microsoft's programs are the most widely used (and the most buggy) and thus the target of most attackers on the Internet. Firefox will crash less, is just as easy to use, and less vulnerable to attack. Download Firefox here.
  • Keep your students off your computer as much as possible, and monitor them when they do use it. They are generally less knowledgeable about the security threats out there, which means they are more likely to download things from shady websites and emails that will mess up your computer.
  • Be suspicious. Learn how to spot malicious email in this slideshow from PC World magazine and this advice from the Anti-Phishing Working Group. Keep up with the latest security threats at CNET Security Center.
  • Turn on Automatic Updates for Windows, which will make sure that the latest security flaw found in Windows will be patched before anyone can exploit it. Again, having a firewall and the rest of the software above will keep you well protected between updates.
What to do when nothing works

If your computer is so messed up you can't even access the Internet to download these programs, try downloading everything on another computer and saving the files to a flash drive so you can still install them.

If you're at a total loss with how to use these programs, or you tried everything and you still have problems, now is the time to call for help. Your school technology staff is probably overburdened and hard to get in touch with--find a knowledgeable colleague or trusted student and ask them to help.