Customer Problem 2: Malware Overload

A while back I had a blog on Google+ linked to my freelance IT business and I started recording some case studies. I think I only did a few in the end but I thought I'd share them anyway.

The Problem:

Had a good one a few weeks ago. An Acer netbook that was failing to load Windows. It was inconsistent, as sometimes it would get as far as the desktop and sometimes it would just show a black screen and go no further.

The Investigation:

In the good old days, you could start Windows in 'safe mode', a special mode that would load a very basic version of Windows, without any additional software. This was a great way to diagnose big, vague problems like this. Windows 8, however, is odd. You can only enable safe mode within Windows itself. This is no help if Windows won't load, which is usually the reason you'd want safe mode in the first place! A face-palm is appropriate at this point.

The Solution:

Anyway, to cut a long story short (too late?) the owner of the laptop had allowed a house guest to use it. This person clearly had no idea how to browse the web safely and intelligently, and had downloaded about every piece of malware to be found. This stuff can be a nightmare to remove but there are a few tools out there that, when used in combination, can strip pretty much all of the nasties out. Part of the problem is the amount of superfluous software that PC manufacturers install on their own new computers from the factory. This is commonly known as 'crapware'. It's an idiotic strategy, comparable to fitting a Porsche with a 40mph speed limiter. If you can't clean out the nasties, the only option left is usually to wipe the hard disk and install Windows afresh. I do this with most of my computers every couple of years or so anyway because it's the only way to guarantee a smooth-running system. Unless a computer is physically broken, it's rare for a technical problem to necessitate buying a new one, despite what 'experts' will tell you. The fact is that any computer will always be as fast as it was when you bought it. Hardware does not 'get slower', but poor software can make hardware appear slow.

The Lesson:

Anti-malware software is great for removing malware, but avoiding getting infected by it in the first place is a much better idea. One way to do this is to use Google's Chrome web browser and install an extension called 'AdBlock' (the 'most popular' one). This will prevent the vast majority of unwanted popups appearing, the ones that encourage you to click them because you've 'won a prize' or 'your computer is infected' (the malware programmers seem to have a taste for irony). It may also block some popups that you want, but you can mark certain sites as 'trusted'. It is free, but you can donate if you think it's an awesome piece of software.The bottom line is to question everything that encourages you to click it, and to read all of the words before you click on anything. Clicking 'next' or 'OK' over and over without actually reading what's on screen is the worst thing you can do. Be suspicious and be cautious at all times!

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Malwarebytes Anti-Malware (free): ain't what it used to be, which was a small, independent, neat utility that scanned your hard drives and got rid of a bunch of nasties. It has unfortunately grown into something else but, if you can avoid the 'helper' app it installs in the system tray, it still works.

ADW Cleaner (free): similar story to above and is now under the Malwarebytes brand but has, without fail, been the best tool I've ever used for getting rid of software nasties.

Crap Cleaner (aka CCleaner, free): also has a 'helper' tool you want to avoid, as it will pester you with updates and upgrades. This is a great program to run once the malware has gone, as it has options for cleaning the Windows registry and uninstalling stubborn crapware.