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Facts About Computer Viruses

It’s first thing Monday morning and you’re sleepily checking your e-mail. You see a message from an unidentified party entitled, “Open: Very Cool :-)“ Not thinking much of it, you click it open and read the following words, “Please pass this information along quickly to all you know.”

Shrugging and taking a sip of coffee, you delete it. But your problems are just beginning. The message was really a virus. It will destroy your memory, sound card, speakers and hard drive, infect your mouse, and disable your keyboard. It self-terminates only after it eats 5 MB of hard drive space, deleting all programs.

Has this happened to you? Hopefully not. Chances are this threat and many more that circulate on the Internet, in the public media and by word of mouth are inconsequential. More then 20,000 viruses have been catalogued, but most are poorly written and of minimal concern. In fact, only about 100 viruses are reported to be responsible for most computer infections. Distinguishing facts from myths can put you on the road to greater confidence managing your valuable computer-based data systems.

What Is a Virus?

A computer virus is code — a program — that can be recognized and run by your computer, causing the code to reproduce. Just like a virus in a human, the computer virus may be innocuous, bothersome or deadly. Yet in all cases, the virus occupies precious computer memory space. Just cycling through the program, no matter how ineffective it may be, could impair the functions of your legitimate applications.

Michelangelo and the Media

Computer viruses have been around for some time, but it took a threat to corporate environments to catch the attention of the news media. Members of the media, seeking anyone who could distinguish a bit from a byte and string together two coherent sentences, set the stage for the following events to unfold:

On March 6, 1992, the 5 17th birthday of artist Michelangelo, media sources reported a virus known as Michelangelo that would allegedly infect more than 5 million computers worldwide. Two months of media hype and panicked hysteria as the day approached affected world financial markets, corporate strategic agendas and the careers of a large number of computer industry experts.

But the alleged virus was a dud. It affected fewer hard drives than the number that might fail on any given day. Nevertheless, other damage was done. First, the public concluded the peril of computer viruses did not exist. Second, misinformation from self-serving antivirus publishers implied that publicly available and free shareware programs were part of the problem and not the solution.

Dispelling Myths

Hysteria and ignorance have combined to create a vibrant industry of myth, legend and hoaxes. But, if you know the facts, you will be in a better position to respond effectively. Familiarize yourself with the following, a few of these falsehoods, myths and misconceptions.

Myth:  Viruses can be transmitted via a data file, e-mail or Web page.
Fact:    Data files cannot carry viruses because such files carry data, not programs. Only an executable program file can carry a virus. But there is a catch. What you believe to be just a data file may include some legitimate executable code, and this code could be infected.

For example, a Microsoft Word document contains only word processing data, so it could not be infected. But a Word template file contains a small program known as a “macro,” that could be infected. Similarly, a simple e-mail message is just data, but an email message that includes a Word template file could carry a virus in that file.

Don’t your Web browser or e-mail application to launch Word automatically when it encounters a document. Open the application first, then read the file. This will minimize the chance of infection from a virus intended to infect the boot sector (start-up program) of your Word application.

Myth:  Someviruses can escape detection by antivirus software.
Fact:    Inour experience, viruses can usually be detected with properly designed — and used — virus scanning software. While perhaps not visible to the naked eye of someone viewing a directory, all known virus programs have a signature that can be differentiated from legitimate code.

Myth:   Backups are useless if you back up the virus along with the data.
Fact:    You can restore important data without restoring the infected program. You will have to remove the infected files, and you probably will have to reinstall computer applications from your original software source. This can be time consuming and tedious, but it is possible.

Myth:   Shareware, public bulletin boards and the Internet are the source of most viruses.
Fact:    This usually is not the case. New shrink-wrapped software applications are a major source of viruses.  Often, new applications instruct users to turn off virus protection software before installing. Follow those instructions, but also check the software for virus infection after installing. Remember, mere connection to a bulletin board or the Internet cannot transmit a virus. You transmit a file to your computer only by choosing to.

Myth:   Antivirus makers write viruses to stay in business.
Fact:    They don’t need to. Legions of people have the skills and are happy to use them. Contrary to popular belief, virus creators are not limited to bored teenage hackers. They include professional business people, military personnel and academics.

Think Before You Click

The next time you get a message about a virus, be prepared. Use antivirus software, and take the precautions suggested.

For more on the dangers of business technology, as well as its advantages, please contact us. We can help your company save money by arming it with the knowledge necessary to avoid viruses and the damage they can cause.

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