At Thanksgiving I met some friends of my grandfather’s. Over the course of conversation these friendly folks related to me their tales of woe mistakenly installing malicious software on their computers. As a computer scientist and one who has grown up with computers, I take for granted that I know how to avoid such pitfalls, but when I started to give my new friends advice I could not think off the top of my head of a clear set of rules to help anyone to avoid becoming a victim of malicious software, also known as malware for short. In this blog post I will attempt to provide the set of rules that I could not bring to mind then. There are many, many different things that one can do to protect oneself from malware, but I will focus here on how to avoid being fooled online into downloading it. A good proportion of malware is distributed through ads (short for advertisements) that appear on web-pages, so I’ll discuss how to recognize these ads and how to deal with them.
- If a window is telling you that its update is urgent, do not install it. Real updates are polite and calm. They will also always use proper punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get freaked out and click an ad before you have the chance to look at it closely. If it doesn’t sound like a corporate professional recommending that you install an update, that update is malware.
- If something offers you money or solutions to any problems that you didn’t specifically ask for solutions to, ignore it. Keep an eye out for “one weird trick,” or “a mom discovered…” or ” X hates this man” where X is any privileged group, particularly doctors or bankers. For instance, “Nutritionists hate this Raleigh mom who discovered how to convert your excess fat into clean, renewable energy using this one weird trick !” is an ad. Do not click it.
- If a window is blinking, ignore it. If it includes animations that repeat over and over again, ignore it. If it’s annoying, close it using the “X” in the corner. Make sure that the “X” is the outermost X, or it may be a fake X to trick you into clicking the ad.
- If you are offered the chance to “win,” it’s an ad. If a game appears for you to play without you asking for a game, it is an ad. If you win the game your prize is malware.
- If you forget every one of these other rules, this one alone should prevent nearly all of your ad-based troubles. By far the most effective step to protecting yourself from malware is to prevent the ads that try to fool you into downloading them from showing up at all. Adblock is a free service that will hide ads without disrupting your usual browsing. To download it, click the logo of the Internet browser you’re currently using here. If you don’t know which is yours, look at the icon you click to connect to the internet, and it should match one of these.
There are a few steps to installation, but once you’ve clicked on the right browser icon, the instructions should be able to lead you the rest of the way towards installation.
I hope that this short list of rules has been helpful to all of you who struggle with misleading ads and malware. Please also remember that while these instructions are useful, they may not protect you from everything. Malware attachments in email, for example, typically will not include animations, games, or flashing lights, but they do fall under rule #1 about professionalism. Generally if you don’t recognize the person who sent you the email you shouldn’t open the attachment. Please feel free to comment on my blog if you have any additional questions or if you need any more explanation about what I have described here.