Question 1: Is the term “anti-virus software” obsolete?

Answer: Yes, but we still use it and perhaps we always will.  A virus is actually a specific type of threat to a computer, and now there are many, many different kinds of threats (here’s a good description of them).  The term “antivirus” has been used to mean “protection from those filthy cybercriminals!”  for such a long time that we still use it to mean protection from cybercrime elements. The correct term is really “anti-malware”, where “malware” is short for “malicious software”.  Malware is anything roaming around cyberspace which is out to get us.  In the security industry we use these terms interchangeably. “Anti-virus” is also often abbreviated as “AV” just to make it even more confusing.

Question 2: Why worry about cybercrime?  Won’t it be completely controlled – eventually?

Answer: It is extremely doubtful that cybercrime will ever go away.  Every year for the last decade it has gotten worse.  Cybercriminals are constantly trying to leapfrog our latest security measures simply because it’s much too profitable for them to give up.  A good scam run by just a few people can net millions of dollars overnight.  In fact cybercriminals are earning in excess of a hundred billion dollars every year worldwide (some estimates say “over a trillion”).  In countries where employment opportunities are scarce, it’s not hard to understand why some hackers go to the dark side.

In fact, cybercrime would be a tempting career choice for more Americans too if it weren’t for the risk of a lengthy prison sentence.

Question 3: What exactly does the word “cybercrime” refer to?

Answer: The broadest definition is: the use of a computer and the internet to commit a crime.  This can include extortion, theft, stalking, cyber terrorism and even murder (although the term “internet homicide” has been coined since at least 2007 to describe the latter.)

Question 4: Can malware infect my computer without me realizing it?

Answer: Absolutely!  There are a number of ways this can happen.

Question 5: For example?

Answer:  Here are four of the most common methods:

a.) Opening an infected file.  Perhaps it was emailed to you, downloaded, or installed via USB.  Most commonly the infection sneaks in with software you really want (like a game or new printer driver).  This why they call it a “Trojan horse”, or Trojan for short.  Tip: don’t download software updates or applications except from completely legitimate sources.  Check to see who the publisher is and make sure you are getting it directly from them.

b.) Agreeing to add anti-virus because some pop-up window said, “you are infected!  Let us in to protect you!”  If this ever happens, remember it’s no different than a stranger banging on your door and offering to house sit.  Don’t do it!  Lately (early 2013) there are lots of phone scammers calling pretending to be Microsoft Support and offering to disinfect your system remotely.  Of course once they get control of your system they keep it.

c.) This is one of the most common infection methods: while your browser is loading a web page, it is also providing information to the web server (the other computer).  This is necessary or we wouldn’t be able to browse the web.  But, this interactivity between your system and the other system also opens the door to infection if you are browsing an infected site.  If the other computer has caught the flu, that virus will try to get onto your system.  The only question then is whether your system is vulnerable or not.  (Does it have strong anti-virus software on it?)

d.) It’s also quite possible, if you clicked on a link you received in an email, that you only think you are communicating with your bank or your social network (good spam will include legitimate logos and verbiage).  But in fact, you have actually been directed to a cybercriminal’s web server.  It’s the server’s job it is to figure out exactly what illness your system might be vulnerable to.  It will ask your system, “what version of xyz software do you have?”  Your system will politely respond.  Then the other system will search its malware library for a piece of code made to infect exactly that version.

If you have great anti-virus software it should warn you when you are about to go to an infected website (I recommend Kaspersky – not just because I work for them, but because we have brilliant virus analysts and our products are excellent).  But whichever one you use (please don’t use the free stuff!) pay attention and always do what it tells you to do!

If you’d like to see for yourself how independent organizations review anti-malware products, these are the top testers in the industry: AV Comparatives and AV Test.