Malware sucks. In the best-case scenario, it craps up your system with unwanted files and occasionally makes itself known in the form of a persistent pop-up window or annoying browser-based toolbar. In the worst-case scenario, malware completely takes over your desktop or laptop and ruins your life.
Your system slows it to a crawl. You can't even boot into Windows in the time it takes you to walk to the kitchen and back. Your data gets sent off to a faraway internet land or, worse, your actual keystrokes are recorded for some unsavoury individual to see. Malware locks down you browser, making you unable to actually do any browsing without being carted off to some bogus domain. You can barely run a program in Windows without getting bombarded by fake advertisements, programs, and dancing people on your desktop.
We can't make this stuff up.
So what's a computer enthusiast to do? Step zero: Read this guide, because we're going to walk you through all the key details you need to know to both rid your computer of this junk and keep it free of downloaded problems forevermore.
Step One: The Pre-step
What's that? No files to download or software to rip malware from your system? Exactly. The most important thing to realise in order to fight in malware's great war is that you, and you alone, are the first line of defence. You only have yourself to blame if your computer is completely overridden with preventable, problem-causing programs.
In short, you have to let your guard down.
So how do you protect yourself against your own habits? Use three simple rules: If it's too good to be true, if it looks strange, or if it's completely unknown to you, don't run it. Don't install it. Don't accept it, don't hit "yes" to it, and don't let it get anywhere near your system. Google, or Bing, or Yahoo is your friend: Find more information about a given situation or software before you agree to let it do anything on your system. Don't surf the Internet blindly and assume that everything on a website is a safe for your system to digest.
Step Two: Browser Blockers
We mentioned that a bunch of malware can come through your browser -- 'tis a shame, we know. Vulnerabilities in browsers and plugins (and user error) can bring your system to its digital knees faster than you can spell the word "crap" in "crapware". So let's start with the simplest step: Stop using an outdated, insecure browser. Make sure you're at least sporting the latest version of one of the "Big Three": Internet Explorer, Firefox or Chrome.
Other extensions and add-ons worth equipping to fight the malware fight include: Web of Trust, KB SSL Enforcer, Adblock, and HTTPS Everywhere.
Step Three Software Stoppers
Running a perfect browser setup only goes so far in the battle against malware: Remember, you are your own worst enemy. Assuming that malware could slip through the gates at some point, what are some of the free software tools that you can use to equip your system with powerful protection before your rogue apps get out of hand?
First up, you'll want a comprehensive scanner running day in and day out to make sure that each and every bit of software you slap onto your computer gets a quick check. For that, we turn to none other than Microsoft's own Windows Security Essentials app. Our reasons are simple: It's free and it works.
Install Windows Security Essentials and you'll get instant access to frequent Microsoft virus and spyware updates in addition to a real-time scanning mechanism that protects your system from anything you download from the internet (or, if you're fancy, anything on a USB device the moment it's jacked into your system). It schedules nightly scans to run by default, but feel free to reschedule these for a time when you know your PC could be running. Additional options let you set the exact parameters for when the scanning should start, which include the ability to restrict virus and malware hunts for periods when your CPU use is below a certain threshold.
Unfortunately, some of the best anti-malware apps on the market are free with an asterisk: We're talking, of course, about SuperAntispyware and Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware. We're fans of Malwarebytes' offering, mainly because the freeware version of its powerful anti-spyware app gives you a few more features to tinker with than SuperAntispyware's. The kicker with both? No real-time protection, so make sure you sent a mental task for yourself to run these apps on a daily or weekly basis.
If you want to get truly hardcore, be sure to grab ComboFix as well. This app-often considered the "nuke it from orbit" option for certain nefarious bits of malware-uses the Windows Recovery Console to find and eliminate annoying malware. It doesn't protect your system up-front, but it's a great tool to have in your back pocket when disaster strikes.
Step Four: Disaster Recovery
So you're infected. Shucks. Malware comes in different forms and annoyance levels, depending on just how well the particular piece of offending software has entangled itself into your operating system. This makes it difficult for us to deliver a perfect fix that fits every situation. However we can at least give you a few helpful suggestions for freeing your PC from malware's clutches.
First off, see if a simple scan from Windows Security Essentials stops your issue dead in its tracks -- likely not, but it never hurts to try the simplest solution before you start rolling up your sleeves a bit more. Update your definitions and select "Full" for the Scan Option, and then sit back and hope that Microsoft's scanner can fix your problem.
No luck? Next up, fire up Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware, make sure your definitions are updated, and run a full scan on your system. If it catches an issue, great; if not, and your malware problem persists, it's time to get a little more creative. Fire up the utility RKill and use it to try and force-stop any malware processes that happen to be running in your system's background. Run Malwareybytes' Anti-Malware full scan one more time.
If you're still out of luck, you'll want to reboot your system into safe mode (spoiler: keep pressing F8 as the bios loads until you're given the option for "safe mode".) and repeat the same RKill/Malwarebytes Anti-Malware step as before. You're doing this in an attempt to unhook whatever malware that's plaguing your PC from the operating system itself: It's not getting wiped out because it's still active (and possibly protecting itself from your removal tools).
Still hurting? Fire up ComboFix and let the scanning and removal tool work its magic -- if, for some reason, it can't remove whatever's affecting your system, you'll get a lengthy log that you can post up on one of ComboFix's associated web forums for further assistance from qualified log parsers. At this point, it might be worth your while to check out other scanning tools not explicitly mentioned in this article, which range from Spybot Search & Destroy, to McAfee AVERT Stinger, to GMER, to Sophos Anti-Rootkit... the list goes on. And you also might benefit from grabbing a few Live CDs for malware and virus removal, like AVG's Rescue CD or Hiren's BootCD.
Like we said, there are nearly as many tools for removing malware as there is malware to infect you. The more you can protect your PC up-front, including training yourself to recognise potential malware when it presents itself and keeping it off your system to begin with, the less you'll have to fool with potentially complicated removal techniques later.
But if you have to go down this route, and simple scans aren't getting the job done, don't forget to try ripping active malware processes out of your operating system and booting your PC into safe mode. After that, exorcising these software demons from your system is all up to your tenacity, your search engine research skills, and your knowledge of third-party removal apps: Or, worse comes to worse, your backup schedule. You know, a reformat is but a few clicks away!
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