The most common ways to contract computer viruses

Like biological viruses, computer viruses spread in highly specific ways. Just as influenza infects people via airborne droplets containing virions the body’s immune systems can’t stop, malware takes over computing devices by bypassing their defenses.

In other words, viruses don’t come out of nowhere, and with the right preparations it’s possible to contain them before they cause significant damage. While there isn’t a vaccine, per se, for computer viruses, there are many highly effective techniques to avoid harm. Make sure you know the most common infection vectors for viruses, so you can take preventive action:

No (or outdated) antivirus software

Antivirus (AV) solutions are the closest things to digital vaccines, as long as they’re actively running on your machine and regularly updated with the most recent threat data. They rely on signatures of known threats, which they scan for and, if found, quarantine. Accordingly, you’re protected against a considerable swath of the danger out there, although you’ll still have to take additional precautions against any relatively new malware not yet included in the AV’s signature repository.

Outdated applications and operating systems

In a similar vein to AV software, you always want to ensure you’re running the latest stable releases of your operating systems (Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, etc.) and their applications. This approach protects you against exploitation of the numerous known flaws that are routinely patched (fixed) in updates. If something you rely on is no longer receiving official updates (e.g., Windows XP), consider abandoning it for something that’s supported.

Email phishing and other scams

Email is a nearly inescapable communication tool for many people, and one that’s fraught with security risks due to its unusual structure and age (while it seems relatively modern, it’s actually almost 50 years old):

  • First, never click a link in an email if you’re unsure about it. Suspicious links can lead you to compromised websites designed to deliver viruses – a technique known as phishing.
  • Consider the source. If you’re getting an email notice claiming to be from a government agency or someone who’s come into an inheritance (both common scams), you can safely ignore it.
  • Watch for typos and lengthy email addresses. Both are frequently associated with schemes that could result in a virus infection.

Unsecured networks

If you’re frequently on the go, chances are you’ve connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot at least once. Public networks are best avoided since you can’t be sure they’re secure. Connecting to them could put you at risk of infection or surveillance.

Always connect to trusted networks secured with WPA2 or WPA3 security. If you absolutely must connect to public Wi-Fi, use a VPN to encrypt your connection. Use Ethernet when possible since it’s not vulnerable to over-the-air interception by devices not physically connected to the same network.

Public USB charging ports

Like public Wi-Fi, USB ports in cafes and airports can’t be trusted. Connecting your device to one of them could result in a virus infection. Bring your own external battery pack, or find a standard wall socket instead.

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