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What Are Computer Viruses?

A computer virus is a type of malicious software, or malware, that spreads between computers and causes damage to data and software. 

Computer viruses aim to disrupt systems, cause major operational issues, and result in data loss and leakage. A key thing to know about computer viruses is that they are designed to spread across programs and systems. Computer viruses typically attach to an executable host file, which results in their viral codes executing when a file is opened. The code then spreads from the document or software it is attached to via networks, drives, file-sharing programs, or infected email attachments.

Common Signs of Computer Viruses

A computer virus will more than likely have an adverse effect on the device it resides on and may be discoverable through common signs of performance loss, including:

Speed of System

A computer system running slower than usual is one of the most common signs that the device has a virus. This includes the system itself running slowly, as well as applications and internet speed suffering. If a computer does not have powerful applications or programs installed and is running slowly, then it may be a sign it is infected with a virus.

Pop-up Windows

Unwanted pop-up windows appearing on a computer or in a web browser are a telltale sign of a computer virus. Unwanted pop-ups are a sign of malware, viruses, or spyware affecting a device.

Programs Self-executing

If computer programs unexpectedly close by themselves, then it is highly likely that the software has been infected with some form of virus or malware. Another indicator of a virus is when applications fail to load when selected from the Start menu or their desktop icon.

Accounts Being Logged Out

Some viruses are designed to affect specific applications, which will either cause them to crash or force the user to automatically log out of the service.

Crashing of the Device

System crashes and the computer itself unexpectedly closing down are common indicators of a virus. Computer viruses cause computers to act in a variety of strange ways, which may include opening files by themselves, displaying unusual error messages, or clicking keys at random.

Mass Emails Being Sent from Your Email Account

Computer viruses are commonly spread via email. Hackers can use other people's email accounts to spread malware and carry out wider cyberattacks. Therefore, if an email account has sent emails in the outbox that a user did not send, then this could be a sign of a computer virus.

Changes to Your Homepage

Any unexpected changes to a computer—such as your system’s homepage being amended or any browser settings being updated—are signs that a computer virus may be present on the device.

How Do Computer Viruses Attack and Spread?

In the early days of computers, viruses were spread between devices using floppy disks. Nowadays, viruses can still be spread via hard disks and Universal Serial Bus (USB) devices, but they are more likely to be passed between devices through the internet. 

Computer viruses can be spread via email, with some even capable of hijacking email software to spread themselves. Others may attach to legitimate software, within software packs, or infect code, and other viruses can be downloaded from compromised application stores and infected code repositories. A key feature of any computer virus is it requires a victim to execute its code or payload, which means the host application should be running.

Types of Computer Viruses

There are several types of computer viruses that can infect devices. This section will cover computer virus protections and how to get rid of computer viruses.

Resident Virus

Viruses propagate themselves by infecting applications on a host computer. A resident virus achieves this by infecting applications as they are opened by a user. A non-resident virus is capable of infecting executable files when programs are not running.

Multipartite Virus

A multipartite virus uses multiple methods to infect and spread across computers. It will typically remain in the computer’s memory to infect the hard disk, then spread through and infect more drives by altering the content of applications. This results in performance lag and application memory running low. 

Multipartite viruses can be avoided by not opening attachments from untrusted sources and by installing trusted antivirus software. It can also be prevented by cleaning the boot sector and the computer’s entire disk.

Direct Action

A direct action virus accesses a computer’s main memory and infects all programs, files, and folders located in the autoexec.bat path, before deleting itself. This virus typically alters the performance of a system but is capable of destroying all data on the computer’s hard disk and any USB device attached to it. Direct action viruses can be avoided through the use of antivirus scanners. They are easy to detect, as is restoring infected files.

Browser Hijacker

A browser hijacker manually changes the settings of web browsers, such as replacing the homepage, editing the new tab page, and changing the default search engine. Technically, it is not a virus because it cannot infect files but can be hugely damaging to computer users, who often will not  be able to restore their homepage or search engine. It can also contain adware that causes unwanted pop-ups and advertisements.

Browser hijackers typically attach to free software and malicious applications from unverified websites or app stores, so only use trusted software and reliable antivirus software.

Overwrite Virus

Overwrite viruses are extremely dangerous. They can delete data and replace it with their own file content or code. Once files get infected, they cannot be replaced, and the virus can affect Windows, DOS, Linux, and Apple systems. The only way this virus can be removed is by deleting all of the files it has infected, which could be devastating. The best way to protect against the overwrite virus is to use a trusted antivirus solution and keep it updated.

Web Scripting Virus

A web scripting virus attacks web browser security, enabling a hacker to inject web-pages with malicious code, or client-side scripting. This allows cyber criminals to attack major websites, such as social networking sites, email providers, and any site that enables user input or reviews. Attackers can use the virus to send spam, commit fraudulent activity, and damage server files.

Protecting against web scripting is reliant on deploying real-time web browser protection software, using cookie security, disabling scripts, and using malicious software removal tools.

File Infector

A file infector is one of the most common computer viruses. It overwrites files when they are opened and can quickly spread across systems and networks. It largely affects files with .exe or .com extensions. The best way to avoid file infector viruses is to only download official software and deploy an antivirus solution.

Network Virus

Network viruses are extremely dangerous because they can completely cripple entire computer networks. They are often difficult to discover, as the virus could be hidden within any computer on an infected network. These viruses can easily replicate and spread by using the internet to transfer to devices connected to the network. Trusted, robust antivirus solutions and advanced firewalls are crucial to protecting against network viruses.

Boot Sector Virus

A boot sector virus targets a computer’s master boot record (MBR). The virus injects its code into a hard disk’s partition table, then moves into the main memory when a computer restarts. The presence of the virus is signified by boot-up problems, poor system performance, and the hard disk becoming unable to locate. Most modern computers come with boot sector safeguards that restrict the potential of this type of virus. 

Steps to protecting against a boot sector virus include ensuring disks are write-protected and not starting up a computer with untrusted external drives connected.

Know More About Computer Viruses Through Examples

There are common examples of what computer and internet users believe to be viruses, but are technically incorrect.

Is Trojan a Virus?

A Trojan horse is a type of program that pretends to be something it is not to get onto a device and infect it with malware. Therefore, a Trojan horse virus is a virus disguised to look like something it is not. For example, viruses can be hidden within unofficial games, applications, file-sharing sites, and bootlegged movies.

Is a Worm a Virus?

A computer worm is not a virus. Worms do not need a host system and can spread between systems and networks without user action, whereas a virus requires users to execute its code.

Is Ransomware a Virus?

Ransomware is when attackers lock victims out of their system or files and demand a ransom to unlock access. Viruses can be used to carry out ransomware attacks.

Is Rootkit a Virus?

A rootkit is not a virus. Rootkits are software packages that give attackers access to systems. They cannot self-replicate or spread across systems. 

Is a Software Bug a Virus?

"Bug" is a common word used to describe problems with computers, but a software bug is not a virus. A bug is a flaw or mistake in software code, which hackers can exploit to launch a cyberattack or spread malware.

How To Prevent Your Computer From Viruses

There are several ways to protect your computer from viruses, including:

Use a Trusted Antivirus Product

Trusted computer antivirus products are crucial to stop malware attacks and prevent computers from being infected with viruses. These antivirus concepts will protect devices from being infected through regular scans and identifying and blocking malware.

Avoid Clicking Pop-up Advertisements

Unwanted pop-up advertisements are more than likely to be linked to computer viruses and malware. Never click on pop-up advertisements because this can lead to inadvertently downloading viruses onto a computer.

Scan Your Email Attachments

A popular way to protect your device from computer viruses is to avoid suspicious email attachments, which are commonly used to spread malware. Computer antivirus solutions can be used to scan email attachments for potential viruses.

Scan the Files That You Download Using File-sharing Programs

File-sharing programs, particularly unofficial sites, are also popular resources for attackers to spread computer viruses. Avoid downloading applications, games, or software from unofficial sites, and always scan files that have been downloaded from any file-sharing program.

How Fortinet Can Help

The Fortinet antivirus solution protects organizations from the latest strands of virus, spyware, and other security threats. Its advanced detection engines help users avoid downloading the latest and evolving threats, and prevents viruses from gaining a foothold inside organizations’ networks. The antivirus solution also reduces the threat of data breaches, protects against evolving malware variants, and keeps businesses up to date with regular updates.