How Computers Get Infected

[Article last reviewed 2019-04-13]

Everyone knows the warnings they get about virus infections. Don't open weird emails. Update your software. But those are pretty abstract and don't explain the real dangers to watch out for.

How do infections really happen?

You get tricked

"But I'm too smart to get tricked." 
       - You

Being tricked isn't related to intelligence. Most infections are by people downloading and running the virus themselves. I've seen very smart, experienced people fall for all kinds of schemes. For example:

  • In email attachments that say they're invoices, parking tickets, or legal judgements

  • A website will say you need to update software in order to use it

  • As a part of other programs you download and run from unreputable sites

  • You're told you have an infection and you need something to fix it

  • Trying to use stolen software. This is a huge way people get infected because criminals know that it's a super easy way to get people to run untrustworthy software

  • Some viruses or hackers, when they infect computers, will email themselves to everyone on someone's address list. You can't trust even files you get from friends unless you were expecting them and the email makes sense. Feel free to reply back and ask

The first rule is that you don't download files or run software that isn't something that you were specifically looking for.
The software you do get must be from a link on the original company's website, that you searched for and verified as real.
When you do install software, make sure you read every option it gives you.

Your antivirus saying something isn't a virus doesn't mean anything at all. Antivirus is like the airbag inflating on your car. If it triggers, something very wrong has already happened.

You get kit'd

There are specially designed web pages that test your computer for lots of outdated software, and if it finds some, it uses known programming errors in those programs to infect your computer - usually in seconds and without you doing anything. These are called exploit kits and they are big business.

Criminals hack other sites or use malicious advertisements to redirect your browser to them. This happens even on big sites, where it's called malvertisingYou don't have to go looking, these infections come to you.

They also send these links in emails and messages on social networking sites.

Usually you are protected if you keep your computer and software up to date.

You get 0day'd

Hackers will sometimes discover a programming flaw and, rather than report it to the developer of the program, use it against people. This kind of flaw is called a "zero-day" because users of the affected program had zero days to deploy a fix before they got infected.

They are rare, but it's one way criminals can get in. This is why you don't open email attachments or office documents you didn't specifically ask for. Do not click links in text messages or messaging programs.