It’s 3 a.m. and the student’s eyes look like the “before” picture in a Visine commercial. All he has left to do is a final check of his 10-page essay for any errors before he turns it in in a few hours. Suddenly he hears a quiet “click” sound and finds himself staring at an error message saying his computer will shut down now. It sounds like the recurring nightmare he has been having, but this time he is awake, and a computer virus has just destroyed his essay.
Although this is not a true story, some students on campus may identify with it.
Kevin Nolan, an information technology specialist for Academic Computing and Network Services, has a few guesses about why people create and unleash viruses,.
“It might be ego, to see what kind of impact they can have,” he said. “Maybe just because they can and they want to test their expertise. Maybe someone is mad at Microsoft and goes after Windows.”
At any given time, dozens of computer viruses are in circulation, waiting to infect some unsuspecting student’s personal computer. College students’ computers are especially vulnerable to viruses because of frequent e-mailing and file sharing by the students. Nolan said those activities are open invitations for viruses to invade computers.
There are still some telltale signs that a computer is infected. Nolan described an infected computer as seeming “unstable.” The computer might simply slow down because it is clogged by the virus. Programs sometimes stop or start without the user doing anything. Error messages are another indicator that a virus might be causing problems inside the computer. Some of these signs could possibly lead to the hard drive being erased.
The most effective way to prevent getting a virus through e-mail, Nolan said, is to be wary of all incoming e-mails.
“Any attachment, even if it’s from someone you know, should make you suspicious,” Nolan said.
He recommends looking at the size of all e-mails received. A normal e-mail might be five or six kilobytes, while most viruses are as large as seven or eight hundred kilobytes.
Another telltale sign to look for is the ending on an attached file. Viruses often come with odd endings like “.pdf.” Nolan said it is very rare to see a legitimate file ending in “.pdf.”
Leaving computers on for long periods of time to share files also exposes them to viruses, so anyone planning on downloading the latest movies or music should make sure to have a well-protected computer.
“Most viruses are designed to transmit from one computer to another,” Nolan said. “Once a virus has infected one computer, it will open up a port and try to communicate with other computers.”
The longer a computer is left on to share files with other computers, the more likely it is that a virus will find its way in. Case in point is the MSBlaster virus.
The MSBlaster virus infected almost 1 million computers in early August by entering computers that were running Windows without the patch Microsoft provided. The virus then searched the Internet for other vulnerable computers to infect.
Jordan Geiger, a senior accounting major, said that he is not overly concerned about contracting a computer virus.
“I don’t think it really concerns anyone until they get one. It’s one of those ‘out of sight, out of mind’ things,” Geiger said.
The best way to protect computers from viruses is to install anti-virus software and to keep it up-to-date, Nolan said. Students can pick up a free Norton Anti-virus CD from the Weber Building in room 224. Students using the software should update it frequently and use it to scan the computer for viruses at least once a week.
Nolan also said students should keep Windows updated on their computers because many viruses target that program. Microsoft offers patches on their updated software, which block certain viruses from infecting Windows. These patches can be downloaded from Microsoft’s Windows Update Web site. If a computer does contract a virus even after the student has taken precautions, the student should act quickly to fix the problem.
Any student with an infected computer should unplug it immediately from any network to which it is connected. This will stop the virus from spreading to other computers on the network. After getting off the network, the next step is to find the virus and get rid of it before it does too much damage.
Sometimes anti-virus software can automatically rid the computer of the virus if the user updates the software and runs a scan on the computer. Trickier viruses call for troubleshooting and costly repairs; they might even require rebuilding the hard drive. Making copies of files could be a way to protect oneself against a virus that tries to corrupt data stored on the hard drive.
When looking for someone to blame for all this trouble they are going through, students should not always expect a 40-year-old disgruntled computer expert holed up in a dark room. The creator of the virus could be living down the hall in the residence halls.
“It takes basic programming knowledge,” Nolan said. “A first-year computer science student could get a virus up and running.”