Uggghh. I should have known better, but there I was, staring at a bright-red screen in my Google Chrome tab that was trying to impress upon me—as much as a software browser could sans digital kick to the butt—that the popular tech news site I was about to visit was riddled with some kind of malware.
“Impossible,” I thought to myself. “There’s no way that this, a common site I frequent on a near-daily basis, could have anything to do with nefarious crap trying to install itself on my PC.”
Yes, the phrasing of my thoughts really does come out like that. So does my stubbornness. For rather than heed Google’s warning that the site I was about to visit was about to unleash a world of hurt on my system, I calmly told my browser that I was comfortable proceeding on my own (damnit).
I clicked the link, read my news and… was thrilled to find a new “Security Center” malware now popping up out of my taskbar about once every five minutes. Sigh. Before I could even turn to one of the many “get the heck off my system” tools that I keep installed for such measures, my entire screen went blue.
This was, of course, some cheap imitation of a Windows blue screen—the fonts were oversized and off and, yes, I could even recognize that the blue color itself wasn’t quite the right kind of blue that usually signifies a complete and total operating system meltdown. It still worked just as effectively. I couldn’t fire up the task manager to kill the program; I couldn’t alt-f4 out of my oceanic Hell; I couldn’t do anything but reset my computer, which did a great job of destroying both my unsaved work and browser sessions in one fell swoop.
But as my computer restarted, it got me to thinking: What do you keep in your safety toolkit? That’s a pretty lame name for it, I confess, but we all have our various tricks and software-based tools for fixing up that-which-has-gone-bad on our desktops. As Maximum PC’s resident “Freeware Dude,” I see more apps come across my radar than I ever know what to deal with and, as a result, I have a pretty short list of digital doctors I call upon when my PC gets the plague.
First up, however, is the ol’ brain-box—as it’s so lovingly referred to by Planescape Torment’s Morte. There’s no problem too large (or too annoying) that can’t be reasoned out in a calm, rational way. In this case, said malware on my system made it impossible to launch any application—yes, that includes the task manager and the ever-helpful “msconfig” System Configuration window (typed in via the run command / Windows 7 search box). There go my first two tricks.
Did I freak out? Nope. Just rebooted the computer, jammed F8, launched Windows into Safe Mode, and prepared for an onslaught of fixings. A simple start to a simple solution, but one that might have sent an otherwise inexperienced computer user running for the hills.
As for the applications themselves, I find that it’s helpful to combine an ever-present virus scanner with a series of malware removers and other such system tweakers that can be run on an as-you-need-it basis. No sense cluttering up one’s system with eight different real-time tools.
For the former, I opt for Windows Security Essentials as my quick-scanning, reasonable-resource-using, completely free virus scanner of choice. Please forgive me, Clamwin. For the latter, nothing beats the one-two-three powerhouse punch of CCleaner (for the little annoyances / temporary system files), Spybot Search & Destroy (I’m a sucker for immunization), and Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware (the F-14 of malware elimination).
Anything less, and I feel underserved. Anything more, and I feel like I’m bringing an army to a playground fight. For the problems that one really has to nuke from orbit in order to fix, I used to run with a Norton Ghost clone of a barebones Windows 7 installation. Anything gets too serious, I call in the big guns and just wipe the whole freakin’ drive (after diligently trying to copy and preserve any critical files). LiveCDs aren't really my thing--I'd rather start fresh instead of trying to patch a growing number of holes in the dam.
Besides, I’m lazy enough with my spring cleaning that a good malware attack actually serves as the best reason for a “wipe and reinstall” rebuilding of the ol’ computer. With most of my games downloadable through the cloud, and most of my critical documents preserved on an every-other-day synchronization schedule, I fear not the Windows installation screen. If anything, a severe bout of malware actually does me a favor.
And, I mean, I can always just take it to the Geek Squad if it gets too bad, right?
Former Maximum PC Editor David Murphy will never distrust Google again. It's too bad they don't make some kind of fancy offline virus scanner... hmm...