This time of year, you hear plenty warnings about email scams and phishing attacks. You know not to reply to an email with your Social Security number, and you don't open email attachments from strangers. You've learned to keep your firewall software turned on, and you've figured out other ways to keep malware out of your computer.
But what do you do when you are a victim of a virus?
It can happen to even the most savvy surfers. Malware makers have determined how to bamboozle web browsers and lay land mines on innocent-looking web sites, and occasionally these tricks can figuratively blow up your computer and make your life a mess.
If your computer isn't inexplicably slow, if programs don't launch unexpectedly or if you don't have other signs of a virus, now's the time to protect your computer. Check out "Review the Rules" below.
If your machine is acting kind of off, it's not a guarantee you have a virus. Take these steps — adapted from recommendations by the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Do an online security scan
PC users can use Microsoft's security scanner (microsoft.com/security/scanner ) to find and remove malware.
Disconnect your computer from the Internet
Depending on what type of Trojan horse or virus you have, intruders may have access to your personal information and may even be using your computer to attack other computers. You can stop this activity by turning off your Internet connection. The best way to accomplish this is to physically disconnect your cable or phone line, but you can also simply "disable" your network connection.
Right-click on the network icon in the System Tray on the bottom right of your screen, then click "Disable." Remember to enable it again when you're ready to get back on the Internet.
On a Mac:
— Click the Apple icon > System Preferences > Network
— Next to "Status: Connected," click the button to disconnect your Mac from the Internet. Remember to enable again when you're ready to get back on the Internet.
Back up your important files
Burn your photos, music and other files to a CD or DVD or save them to some other external storage device. Understand, though, that these files might still be infected, but you can deal with that later. For now, make sure all your memories are backed up.
Scan your machine
MacScan (macscan.securemac.com ) for Macs and ZoneAlarm (zonealarm.com ) for PCs are good places to start when you want software to search your computer for malicious code and remove it. Get a friend to download a demo version to a disk for you so you can run on it on your machine (your computer still should be disconnected from the Internet).
Reinstall your operating system
Your new computer came with disks or a USB stick with your operating system on it. Read the manual to see how to reinstall the system. Don't try to borrow a friend's operating system disk; it likely won't work on your computer.
Review the rules
To prevent future infections:
— Do not open unsolicited attachments in email messages.
— Do not follow unsolicited links.
— Maintain updated anti-virus software.
— Use an Internet firewall.
— Keep your web browser updated.