Oh, the not-so-humble computer virus. For decades, it's been making computer users miserable.
It's like the common cold. You'd think someone would have cured both by now. Unfortunately, it looks like computer viruses are just getting stronger and smarter.
In the early days, a virus would delete your files and spread to other computers. It was annoying, but the effects were easy to detect and contain.
Today, in addition to traditional viruses, there are Trojans, worms, ransomware, spyware, adware and plenty of other "wares." The computer industry term for all this is "malware."
Even state-of-the-art computer security can't always keep up with new threats. Of course, everyone should still be running up-to-date security programs. Fortunately, there are excellent free anti-virus, spyware and firewall programs. Click here to see my top free security software picks.
Every type of malware does something a little differently. You might not even recognize that your computer is infected. To help you out, here are five signs you can look for.
Running into pop-up ads while surfing the Web used to be par for the course. Thanks to pop-up blocking now standard in modern browsers, these annoyances aren't common.
Still seeing pop-ups online from multiple sites? It could be a badly-configured browser.
Seeing pop-ups when your browser isn't even open? It's usually adware, spyware or scareware.
You can usually tell it's the last one if the pop up says "a virus was detected." It will offer you a paid program to remove the virus. Of course, you'll just be downloading even more malware.
Your regular anti-virus might not seem to stop this. In that case, run a scan with a separate anti-spyware program. Click the links to download SpyBot Search & Destroy or Ad-Aware. These can help you get to the root of the problem.
A dangerous feature of most malware is that it spreads. With always-on Internet, email, instant messaging and social media available, modern viruses have it easy.
Once they're on your computer, they have plenty of options. You might see friends replying to email messages you didn't send. Perhaps you notice a post on your Facebook profile you didn't write.
In most cases, these will have a tempting link. If your friends and family click the link, they're infected and the virus spreads even further.
Keep an eye on your email "sent" folder and on your social network posts. If you see items you didn't send or post, change your account passwords immediately. This will lock out a virus that's stolen your passwords.
Then go to work with your security software. After you've removed the virus, I'd change your passwords again, just in case.
Be sure to let your friends and family know you were hacked. That way they can take precautions for their accounts as well.
Having trouble taking back your account from a virus or hacker? Click here for detailed instructions to clean up your computer.
You're surfing the Web minding your own business. Suddenly a scary message appears. It says law enforcement has detected illegal material on your computer. You've been locked out until you pay a fine!
Of course it's a lie. A virus has taken over and is holding your computer ransom. That's why it's commonly called "ransomware."
Some ransomware doesn't even try to be sneaky. It tells you up front that hackers took over your system. You have to pay to get it back.
I don't recommend paying. You won't get your computer back.
Unfortunately, you probably won't be able to run your normal anti-virus program. You'll need a rescue CD. Click the links for the free AVG Rescue CD or Windows Defender Online to take care of the problem.
In some cases, the ransomware actually encrypts your files. If that happens, you better have a recent backup. Even if you get rid of the virus, your files might be lost.
Essential tools and programs stop working
If a computer is misbehaving, most computer users hit Ctrl + Alt + Del. The "three-finger salute" lets you open up Task Manager. This can show you what programs are causing trouble.
Sometimes, you'll hit this keyboard shortcut and nothing happens. Your Start Menu won't open. Nothing happens when you right-click on the desktop. Your security software won't run.
This is often a clue that a virus is messing with your computer. It's doing what it can to keep you from identifying it and removing it.
This is where deep-cleaning anti-malware software like MalwareBytes will shine. If that fails, you'll need to use a rescue CD like I mentioned earlier.
If nothing you do works, it could also be a hardware problem. Most likely it's bad RAM or a failing power supply.
Everything is running fine
I run into many people who don't install security software. The excuse is always the same: "But my computer runs just fine without it. If I had a virus, I'd know."
The simple fact is that you don't know. Modern malware can hide deep in your computer without raising red flags. It will just quietly go about its business.
There are some sneaky viruses that will remove other viruses so you don't get suspicious!
Just because a virus isn't disruptive doesn't mean it isn't dangerous. It could be snagging your passwords, sensitive files or other vital information. The virus could be using your computer to send spam. It could even attack banks and other organizations.
You won't know until your identity is stolen and your bank account is drained. Maybe your Internet slows to a crawl or your service provider shuts down your connection.
Some people never figure it out. There are computers out there that have been sending spam for years. Their owners have no clue.
That's why every computer user, even Mac users, needs up-to-date security software installed. Keep it updated and set it to run regular, automatic scans.
And don't rely on just one program, but run a scan with several security programs at least once a month. What one program misses other programs might find.
Copyright 2013, WestStar Multimedia Entertainment. All rights reserved.
Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about consumer electronics, computers and the Internet. To get the podcast, watch the show or find the station nearest you, visit: www.komando.com/listen. To subscribe to Kim's free email newsletters, sign-up at: www.komando.com/newsletters.