Q: I plan on doing my taxes on my computer this year and want to make sure that I don't have any viruses that will steal my information. Is a virus scan enough or should I do more checks? - Michael
A: Millions of U.S. taxpayers will turn to their own computers once again this year to prepare and file state and federal tax returns. The ease of use and sophistication of the tax programs have made them a compelling option for many tax payers (an estimated 35% did so in 2010).
With that many Internet connected computers that are compiling sought after information by ID thieves, you can bet that the attempts to exploit US based computers is in full force as you read this.
A virus could open the door for the actual program that would hide itself in your computer, but simply scanning for viruses is no longer sufficient.
Malware (malicious software) comes in so many forms these days and can sneak into your computer from virtually any activity you likely engage in every day.
A complete virus scan of your computer is certainly a good start, but since most malware is pretty good at sneaking past antivirus programs these days, I would highly recommend that you do an additional self-check of your computer, especially if you are running older versions of Windows like XP.
Start by rebooting your computer so that it's starting clean; if your computer takes a long time to startup, that's the first sign that extra programs are likely loading every time you start your computer.
Once it has fully booted, launch the Task Manager by hitting Ctrl-Alt-Del at the same time (or you can right-click on the Taskbar and select Task Manager).
When the Task Manager opens, it should be in the ‘Applications' window, which should be empty. In the bottom left corner will be a display of the ‘Processes:' that are currently running.
On a well maintained computer, this number will be in the 30-40 range for desktop computers and 35-45 on portable computers (laptops & netbooks).
The higher the number is over these benchmarks, the more you should be concerned about what unnecessary programs are running in the background of your computer.
The next check is accessed by clicking on the Performance tab which will display the CPU and Memory meters.
With no programs open, the top set of graphs (CPU Usage & History) should be low and stable. If you see the CPU Usage meter jumping up and down and the history graphs shows a lot of up and down activity, you would be wise to avoid doing your taxes or even any kind of online banking until you have the system evaluated for potential hidden malware (I've posted an example video on this self-check process at http://bit.ly/huIRHh .
The process of tracking down the extra processes, understanding what they do and removing them if they are unnecessary or malicious can get quite complicated, especially for those that don't have a good working knowledge of the Windows Registry (my column on ‘Cleaning up Excess Processes' is posted here: http://bit.ly/fCXtjA). Lots of tools exist for scanning for malicious programs on your computer (Malware Bytes is one of the best) but knowing which tool or manual process to use under which circumstances is a constantly moving target.
If you're not very technical, find someone that you trust that is as this isn't an area of computing that you should take lightly.
And if you think those slick TV ads for automated computer cleanup services are an option, you'll want to read this http://bit.ly/deVTmp before you spend your money on any non-human solution to this very complex problem.
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