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What is a virus and what damage can it do?
A virus is a computer program that is looking to reside uninvited on your PC. Like its biological version it can copy itself, and thus infect other PCs and your home network. Viruses are usually created by programmers with malicious intent - therefore the effect of having one or more viruses on your PC is usually somewhere between disruptive and disastrous. So a virus may interfere with your computer settings, your browser defaults, it may close your PC down intermittently with no warning; it may delete files, take up memory (slowing your PC down) or hijack your email system. There are viruses out there that may attempt to steal personal details from your computer. Worms and Trojan horses are similar but subtly different from viruses but they are all invariably bad news for you.  
How do they get on your system?
The main ways that a virus, worm, spyware and the like get onto your PC is through
Internet Downloads -
Email Attachments
USB Drives
Floppy Drives

Just being connected to the internet without proper precautions (see firewall info below) will mean that inevitably and quickly you will be infected.

How do I prevent them?
Prevention is better than the cure - that applies most definitely to viruses as the cure may be very drastic and involve (worse case scenario) wiping your hard drive and re-installing your operating system. Or pay someone else to do it for you. So the ESSENTIALS of prevention are :

1. Antivirus Software loaded onto every PC in your house and with the subscriptions uptodate. New viruses are created every day so watch that subscription. (Some antivirus software is listed below). Good antivirus software will detect and delete most viruses you receive in email also.

2.. Get a FIREWALL in place. A firewall is your main line of defence between your lone PC and the whole of the world wide web. It sounds a bit technical but the chances are you already have one in place and if you don't its probably a couple of clicks away.

There are two types of firewall - software and hardware firewalls. Many people use both in their home set up. If you have Windows XP (Service Pack 2 - see note) - or Vista you already have the free Windows Firewall. Check you have it on in Start - Control Panel - Windows Firewall. If you click on the link at the bottom of that page it tells you exactly what it does.

On top of that level of security you might also want to consider a hardware firewall. This used to be in the domain of the more technically minded but now that Internet Service Providers provide free routers and wireless routers to their home users thats all changed. Almost certainly if you have one of these it will have a firewall built in and it will work straight out of the box. Its unlikely you would need to adjust any settings.

With a router and the Windows Firewall on every PC in your home network you'll be well protected from hackers.

3. Keep Windows up to date - check this in XP under My Computer - Right Click - Properties. There is a tab called Automatic Updates where you can check the settings.

4. Don't click on attachments - the emails that say 'your bill attached ' and the like from unknown emailers. Click on the attachment and your problems will begin.

Also (less urgent but very good practice)...

5. Keep Spyware off your machine - spyware monitors your activities and even redirects your browser to adverts. Not all antivirus programs are very good at detecting it. Check the free stuff below for some downloads which will root out some things your antivirus program may not.

6. Run an antivirus scan on Downloads - when you download something from the internet onto a directory in your PC right click on it and one of the options should be 'scan with ...' whatever antivirus you have.

7. Run an antivirus scan on your whole system once a week
- just in case a virus got onto your system and you are not yet experiencing problems..

What if I get infected?
If you suspect you have a virus - check your antivirus is up-to-date and then run the antivirus scan whole system option and see whats reported there. This will often resolve the issue. If not, things can get a bit hairy - the System Restore in Windows is a reasonably user-friendly option - but its not often clear what date you should restore to. After that it gets more challenging and beyond the scope of this article.
Antivirus Software
There are others but these are very reasonable in their recent versions - not free but very good pricewise and in performance
Kaspersky Anti-Virus 6
AVG Anti-Virus Professional Edition 7.5
Panda Antivirus & Firewall 2007
They also come in Internet Security Suite bundles for a higher cost - a reasonable option but not essential.
FREE Antivirus Software
A reasonable option for the more cost conscious is the free version of the AVG antivirus - no bells and whistles but should keep you free of viruses. Download it here

If you go for this option you should also make use of the some free downloads for preventing and removing spyware.
Most of the good antivirus programs will attempt spyware blocking for you but you should probably consider some dedicated spyware removal software - you definitely should if you have opted for the free AVG antivirus above.

The no-cost options are
Windows Defender - FREE Download here
Spybot Search & Destroy - FREE Download here
Adaware - FREE Download here

You can download and use them all. The only problem with the Spybot and the Adware is that they don't do such a good job at prevention - they remove after infection. Better to stop spyware getting on in the first place - Windows Defender has what they call Real Time Detection - it will stop the spyware loading in the first place. It also updates automatically so will help you stay on top of the problem.

note: check your version of your operating system and Service Pack in XP - My Computer - Right click - Properties.

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