Are the Bad Guys Winning?

In computer security, it certainly seems as if the “Black Hats” are usually one or more steps ahead of the “White Hats”. What are your thoughts?

There are two answers:

  1. Almost by definition, the bad guys will always be in the lead.
  2. It rarely affects the average consumer directly.

The bad guys aren’t necessarily winning, but they’ll always present a challenge for the good guys.

Read moreAre the Bad Guys Winning?

How Do I Remove Malware?

One question that shows up almost every day in the Ask Leo! inbox is how to remove malware.

Every day.

The scenarios differ, but the problem is the same: a machine has been infected with spyware, a virus, or some other form of malware, and that machine’s owner is having a tough time getting rid of it.

And often there is anti-malware software installed that “should” have taken care of it before it got to this stage.

Hopefully, that’ll never be you. If it is, let’s review the steps I recommend for removing malware and reducing the chances it’ll happen again.

Read moreHow Do I Remove Malware?

How Do I Know if My Machine is Free of Malware?

How do I find out or know that my computer is free of keyloggers? Would Windows Defender or MalwareBytes find them if there are any, or do you have a referenced article on the topic where I can read about it? Understand that this is the biggest security concern I have about my computer nowadays.

How do you know your computer is free of keyloggers? You don’t.

It’s not the answer most people want to hear, but it’s the true bottom line.

There are a few reasons for it, which I’ll discuss, as well as what you and I need to do in the face of this rather grim reality.

Read moreHow Do I Know if My Machine is Free of Malware?

I’ve Been Told My Computer Has a Virus, But My Anti-Malware Program Doesn’t Remove It. What Do I Do?

I get variations of this question often. Someone has correctly determined their computer has some kind of malware, either by symptoms or some other means, but the anti-malware program they’re running fails to detect it — or perhaps detects it, but fails to repair it.

It’s a race, folks, and sometimes your security software isn’t in the lead.

Read moreI’ve Been Told My Computer Has a Virus, But My Anti-Malware Program Doesn’t Remove It. What Do I Do?

Can I Really Get Malware by Just Looking at Email?

New malware appears every day, and it seems like hackers constantly get smarter and craftier.

In the past, asking if your machine could become infected with malware by just reading your email would get laughs from the geeks in the crowd. “Of course not!” they would giggle.

Then came Outlook. Not only could opening an email infect your machine, but for a while, you didn’t even have to be around to have it happen.

And the geeks stopped giggling.

For a while.

Fortunately, today things are different.

Read moreCan I Really Get Malware by Just Looking at Email?

How to Avoid Ransomware

How can I prevent this new risk of criminals encrypting files on my hard drive and then demanding a ransom to unlock the data? Is having a router and software firewall enough?

In other words, how do you avoid ransomware?

Let’s look at ransomware — software used to hold your data hostage until you pay up — and how best to protect yourself.

Spoiler alert: you already know the answer.

Read moreHow to Avoid Ransomware

Internet Safety: 7 Steps to Keeping Your Computer Safe on the Internet

The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet – FREE EditionSubscribe to The Ask Leo! Newsletter and get the 88-page Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet – FREE Edition digital download as a gift. Based in part on this article, the Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet – FREE Edition will help you identify the most important steps you can take to keep your computer and yourself safe as you navigate today’s digital landscape.

Viruses and spyware and worms … oh my!

The very concept of “internet safety” is almost an oxymoron these days.

It seems not a day goes by that we don’t hear some new kind of threat aimed at wreaking havoc across machines connected to the internet.

Here are some things you can (and should) do to stay safe.

Read moreInternet Safety: 7 Steps to Keeping Your Computer Safe on the Internet

How Do I Remove a Virus If It Prevents Me from Downloading or Installing Anything?

I am trying to fix a computer that has malware preventing me from getting into regedit and task manager. It will not let me boot into safe mode. It will not let me install any anti-spyware or anti-virus software. I’m not sure where to go from here. It has stopped me from doing much of anything to get the malware off the computer. Any suggestions?

Sadly, this is all too common. Malware can be pretty sophisticated, and it can work hard to prevent you from removing it. That means you may be blocked from downloading or running anti-malware software, or be prevented from running tools already on your machine that might help.

I’ll save the “prevention is so much easier than the cure” missive for a moment. We just want this fixed.

There are things that we can try, but unfortunately, there are no guarantees.

Read moreHow Do I Remove a Virus If It Prevents Me from Downloading or Installing Anything?

Why Wouldn’t an Exploit be Caught by My Anti-malware Tools?

Why would an exploit not be caught or detected by my antivirus program (Avast) or Malwarebytes (running in the background)? If not detectable, how much “damage” can the exploit actually do if users follow prudent operating precautions? Would System Restore be usable if infected? I have also followed your advice and routinely image my Dell laptop.

We need to clear up a little terminology, but your question is a very good one: how can malware get past anti-malware programs to infect the software installed on your machine?

And more importantly, what can you do to protect yourself?

Let’s define some terms with what I’m thinking is my silliest metaphor ever, and then talk about how to stay safe.

Read moreWhy Wouldn’t an Exploit be Caught by My Anti-malware Tools?

How Do I Remove a Website from My Computer?

I get this question surprisingly often.

Unfortunately, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of exactly how things work. Unless you’re an actual website developer, websites aren’t on your computer.

I’m not saying there isn’t a problem or something annoying going on – there probably is. But a website “on” your computer isn’t it.

Let’s look at why the difference matters, and what kind of problem this might really be.

Read moreHow Do I Remove a Website from My Computer?

My Machine’s Full of Malware; Should I Get a New Computer?

I give up. My computer has been infected with malware – lots of it – and I can’t seem to get rid of it all. I’m ready to throw in the towel. Should I just get a new computer? Wouldn’t that just solve everything?

You should never have to buy a new computer because of malware.

I hear from people all the time who have machines infected with varying degrees of malware. Their goal is simple: their computer is crippled with malware and they just want it to work so that they can get on with their lives.

If that’s you, and you’re at the point where you’re considering getting a new computer because of it, wait.

Before you get out your credit card and lay out money on a new computer, allow me to clear up some common confusion and possibly save you some cash.

Read moreMy Machine’s Full of Malware; Should I Get a New Computer?

Phishing: How to Know it When You See It

I’ve received an email from Microsoft asking for billing details and threatening the end of my account. Contacting Microsoft resulted in referral to a support alias, but no answer. Is this a problem, or a forgery?

Phishing is a word you hear a lot in the news these days, and this question brought it to mind.

You’re right to be suspicious: this definitely sounds like a phishing expedition.

Read morePhishing: How to Know it When You See It

Resist Those Dancing Bunnies

There are those who believe that anti-malware applications actually aren’t needed. While I disagree with that as an absolute statement, the fact is that if you really know what you’re doing – deeply – then it may be possible to be relatively safe on your own.

It’s just not something I advise, since it relies on being 100% right 100% of the time when it comes to identifying and avoiding potential threats. Things have become much too complex to rely on that kind of accuracy.

Not only do I advise running anti-malware tools, I run them myself.

The real problem is something else entirely.

Read moreResist Those Dancing Bunnies

Is anti-virus dead?

Hi, Leo. Do you have any observations, comments or advice about the recent Symantec talk given to Wall Street Journal? They seem to say that only 45% of computer viruses are caught. Are we as home users more prone to attack nowadays, or is this comment mainly directed to companies as an earnings increase tactic? I’m sure we’ll be interested in their falling profits.

Yeah, this actually made the headlines a couple of weeks ago. The headline that was being generated of course, was “Antivirus is dead”.


Antivirus is not dead.

In my opinion this is just another case where somebody chooses an exceptionally sensational headline or position in the hopes that it will get people talking. Apparently they succeeded, because here I am, talking about it.

Read moreIs anti-virus dead?

Is It Safe to Download from Download Sites?


Hi, Leo. I seem to remember reading some time ago that it was not safe to download anything from CNet plus I suffered a malware infection, which might have been caused by a download from that site. I’ve been reading your article about Macrium Reflect and considered downloading the free version from the CNet website. What’s your opinion on CNet? Do you think it’s safe to download from this site? I’m presently using Windows XP.

I actually now recommend that you avoid all download sites if at all possible. There are simply too many stories exactly like yours: downloads that come with much more than is expected.

Read moreIs It Safe to Download from Download Sites?

Can Malware Authors Hijack My Anti-malware Software?


Leo, I believe that the vast majority of PC users are not exactly sure about what is normal or what’s supposed to happen during the Windows uninstall process; most specifically, or importantly, when dealing with malware.  Can the unscrupulous malware writers hijack the process somehow in an attempt to get the PC user to install something else, or worse??

It might be helpful here to start with a definition of the term “uninstall”. “Uninstall” is a term we use to refer to the orderly process of removing software that has been installed. It’s usually performed by the very setup program that put it there in the first place.

And, to be clear, there’s really no such thing as a standard Windows uninstall process.

Read moreCan Malware Authors Hijack My Anti-malware Software?

Should I cover my webcam when not in use?

Hello, Leo. Tonight on Dutch TV news, there was a warning that hackers can use your webcam although you do not actually use the camera yourself. It’s recommended that the lens should be blinded by means of a sticker or something similar. What’s your opinion on this?

My opinion is that this is another case of everybody getting all excited about one very specific issue.

The problem here is really much, much larger and a lot less newsworthy than getting everyone excited about their webcam. It’s essentially sensationalistic journalism.

You can cover your lens if you want to, but that really, really misses the point.

Read moreShould I cover my webcam when not in use?

Do I need all these Office 2007 updates if I also have Office 2010?


I’m running Windows 7 Home, 64-bit, SP1 on an HP laptop. Originally, I had Office 2007 Professional installed. I subsequently bought and installed a standalone copy of Outlook 2010. Later, I bought and installed a copy of Office Home and Student 2010. I did not uninstall Office 2007 because I wanted to retain the ability to use Publisher 2007. Now, when I run Windows Update, it wants me to install all of the updates for both 2007 and Office 2010. Why would I want to install updates to Word or Excel or PowerPoint or Outlook 2007 or install 2007’s huge SP3? Should I?

Yes, you want to take that update. If you have parts of Office 2007 on your machine and you have Office 2010 on your machine, then you want all of the updates for all of the software that’s installed on your machine. It’s more than just minor improvements and whatnot; it really is all about security.

Read moreDo I need all these Office 2007 updates if I also have Office 2010?

Can an ISP Remotely Access My Computer without My Knowledge?

In a live chat session that I instigated, my cable ISP technician support wanted to remotely access my PC. “Connect to your computer and share your screen” to troubleshoot my inability to change some account information on their website. I was flabbergasted that they would suggest it and I told them no. As it turned out, my third attempt to change the information worked. The previous attempts brought a cryptic error message. What I’d like to know is whether an ISP can access our PCs without our knowing it? I guess not, but being paranoid is prudent these days.

I agree. Prudent paranoia is actually a good thing.

In this case, an ISP cannot access our PCs without us allowing it. The problem is that there are nuances that you might not realize.

Read moreCan an ISP Remotely Access My Computer without My Knowledge?

Can a flash drive that has a Linux install on it become infected?

Leo, I’ve got a USB flash drive with a full persistent bootable installation of Linux on it. Can this flash drive become infected if I plug into a Windows machine with a virus on it? Say at an internet café or a public library?

The answer is yes, no, and maybe. It’s complex, but it’s a good question to ask because the devil is in the details.

Let me explain how this works.

Read moreCan a flash drive that has a Linux install on it become infected?

Can I Be Sure My Machine Is Malware Free?

I’m running various virus and malware checkers, but my computer seems more sluggish all the time. A guest borrowed my PC and may have browsed some questionable sites. Any suggestions? I’m very nervous about logging into my bank online. A keystroke logger could grab my data.

As it turns out, there’s actually no way to prove that you don’t have malware on your machine. From a logical perspective, you can’t prove a negative.

You didn’t say what tools you’re running, so it’s hard for me to judge the answer to your question. If you’re concerned, let’s look at what you can do.

Read moreCan I Be Sure My Machine Is Malware Free?

Will Someone Hacking My Router Show up on My Computer?

If someone hacks into my router, will their activity show up on my personal computer and phones? We have activity as far as websites visited but we swear that the router must have been hacked. Is it possible for activity to be on the computer and phone if they weren’t actually used?

Hacking a router is possible, but fairly uncommon.

Most router hacks happen from the computers in your local network. That means you may have malware on one or more of your machines and it’s accessing the router. This can show up in several different ways on your computer.

I’m not so sure about the phones.

But since you asked, let’s talk a little about this scenario.

Read moreWill Someone Hacking My Router Show up on My Computer?

Are Silent Background Updates a Good Thing?

I have a little philosophical question: what’s the difference between Google Chrome silently updating in the background without me ever giving it explicit permission to do so, and malware updating itself in much the same way and getting new commands to wreak havoc? In fact, I believe Google Earth also updates itself with no explicit permission. At some point, it suddenly showed up in my frequently used programs as a new program even though I already had it. If there’s a clause in the User Agreement that says they can, it becomes a legal issue where the question is whether they can just change the Agreement after a user agrees to a different version of it.

Well, I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to address legal issues. But I bet the agreement probably contains terminology to give them permission to do silent updates.

It’s one of those things about legalese: lawyers can always interpret it in a way that allows them to say you agreed.

The concern I have with your question is that you seem to be very distrustful of these silent updates and consider them akin to malware.

I strongly disagree.

Read moreAre Silent Background Updates a Good Thing?

Why Doesn’t Malware Appear in the Add/Remove Programs List?

I have a page that somehow embedded itself with a corrupt software program that I downloaded from an American university. I understand that this thing is a parasitic browser that provides a route to viral contamination. With the help of Norton, I eventually managed to remove it. Why is there no indication in the Control Panel for removal? Using “search” brought out the offending program, but it did not allow me to delete it. What advice can you give for tracking an unwanted and intrusive browser? The normal Norton 360 failed to protect my laptop, but thanks to one of their online agents, after an exhaustive analysis of the registry, it was removed with a more powerful scan made available by them.

What you’re dealing with is a form of malware. It may not be the malware per se; meaning that it’s not doing anything specifically bad itself, but it’s a vector for malware. It installs itself on your machine, so malware can download without your permission or interaction.

I’ll talk about the malware in a moment. First, let’s talk about the Add/Remove Programs list.

Read moreWhy Doesn’t Malware Appear in the Add/Remove Programs List?

How do webcams get hacked?

I’ve heard that computers that have webcams installed can get hacked. My question is how do hackers get access? Shouldn’t I be able to see the webcam software running on my screen? How can I tell if the webcam has been hacked and how do I avoid it?

A webcam hack is nothing special. It’s just plain-old malware.

Some malware acts as spam-sending zombies. Other malware actually performs data destruction. Still other malware might sniff your keystrokes. This malware turns on your webcam and does something with what it sees.

Let’s look at how this works and what you can do.

Read moreHow do webcams get hacked?

Is It Safe to Leave My External Backup Drive Connected?

I’ve read your many articles about backing up. The only additional question I have is this: once the Macrium backup is done to my external drive, do I unplug it? Or is it safe to leave it connected?

Like many questions that I deal with, this is one of those scenarios where the answer is rarely a clear yes or no. I have a preference, but ultimately, the answer is… it depends.

Let’s look at the issue.

Read moreIs It Safe to Leave My External Backup Drive Connected?