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The term virus is often mistakenly used to refer to any kind of malicious software (malware) on a computer. In the strictest sense, however, a virus is a specific type of malware. A virus is a small computer program that is designed to spread from file to file, and from computer to computer, and interfere with the operation of the machine. Some viruses can also sit in a computer's memory and infect files as the computer opens, modifies, or creates new files.
Currently there are computer viruses written for nearly all operating systems including DOS, Windows, Mac OS, and Unix. Smartphones can also become infected.
Virus hoaxes are either deliberate or unintentional email messages warning people about a phony virus or other malicious software program. Although virus hoaxes are not in themselves destructive, they can create nearly as much trouble as viruses by causing massive amounts of unnecessary email.
How does my computer get a virus?
Like human viruses, computer viruses cannot spread without some human action. If you shake hands with somone who has a cold, for example, you may end up with that cold yourself. Likewise you can spread a computer virus by taking some action: downloading a file, clicking on a link, or running an infected program.
Viruses often spread to other computers through the user's email contacts, without the user's knowledge or permission. This is why you should never open an email attachment unless you know the person that sent it and you are expecting it.
Files available for download, especially the free ones, often contain viruses and other malware. Never download a file from an untrusted site, and always scan it with your antivirus program before installing it.
How can I tell if my computer has a virus?
A computer system infected with a virus can display various symptoms. Some viruses damage files and operating systems, but neither symptoms nor damage are definite indicators to the presence of a virus; a virus that is not overtly destructive is still a virus.
The safest way to check is to run an antivirus program.
Virus Detection and Prevention Tips
Get and use antivirus software.
If you don't already have antivirus software on your machine...quick! Stop reading this article and get some! It's cheap, or free, and it's your best bet to stay protected. You can buy it at a store, order it online, or download it from a trusted site. Use your favorite search tool and search on "download antivirus software." If you want one of the good free programs, use the word "free" in that search.
Before you decide on which program you want, check out these antivirus software reviews.
Scan your system regularly.
If you're loading antivirus software for the first time, let it scan your entire system. Often, the antivirus program can be set to scan each time the computer is rebooted or on a periodic schedule. Some will scan in the background ("real time") while you are connected to the Internet. Make it a regular habit to scan for viruses.
Don't open attachments.
One of the best ways to prevent virus infections is not to open attachments, especially when dangerous viruses are being actively circulated. In fact, email attachments are the number one attack vector for infections from viruses. Even if the email is from a known source, be careful. Your friend might be sending you a virus without realizing it - many viruses take the mailing lists from an infected computer and send out new messages with its destructive payload attached. To be safe, scan every email attachment with your antivirus program before opening it.
Update your anti-virus software.
Now that you have virus protection software installed, make sure it's up to date. Most anti-virus programs have a feature that will automatically link to the Internet and add new virus detection definitions whenever the software vendor discovers a new threat.
There are new virus and security alerts almost every day. Keep up-to-date on breaking viruses and solutions. Remember that the bad guys are going to try to use social engineering to exploit you. Staying informed is the perfect countermeasure against that.
For more information on antivirus software, visit the US-CERT's "Understanding Anti-Virus Software" page.