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Malware and Nonprofits: How Your Organization Can Detect and Prevent Viruses

Security

By: Peter Pane, IT Specialist

A computer virus is a piece of code or program that is capable of reproducing itself and infecting or modifying other software. Once executed, a computer virus can corrupt the operating system, damage hard drives, destroy vital data and steal private information.  Computer viruses are one part of a larger group of threats known as malware, which is an abbreviated term for “malicious software.” Along with computer viruses, malware also includes spyware, adware, worms and Trojan horses.
 
The risks to nonprofits are significant. Malware can access sensitive account information, personnel data, and client information, in addition to hacking financial accounts and potentially wreaking havoc with the organization’s entire infrastructure. Your nonprofit must take a proactive approach in protecting the organization’s computers and all vital information stored on them.
 
Antivirus programs such as McAfee and Norton* are not only well-established and reliable brands, but they’re also low cost options that will detect viruses and other malware infections on your computer. Avast is another powerful antivirus program; it offers both free and paid versions.

*Editor's note: Symantec makes Norton security software available to eligible TechSoup Canada members. Bitdefender is also a great option and it's available through our catalogue as well. 
 
However, even if you're using antivirus software, there are still times when malware can go undetected. That's why it's critical to pay attention to the following indicators, as they may be symptoms of malware.

System performance indicators 

A computer’s overall performance can signal potential viral infections. Viruses can affect your system’s performance in the following ways:

  • Speed – Your computer runs significantly slower than normal. It takes longer to load programs, search for files, and start up the operating system.
  • Crashes or freezes – The computer continuously freezes, crashes or becomes unresponsive. Another red flag is when the operating system continues to freeze during start-up and never finishes loading.
  • New or missing icons – New icons appear on your desktop and/or old icons disappear.
  • Error messages – Unusual error messages start showing up out of the blue. These messages can say you have a virus and try to get you to install a corrupt file.
  • Untriggered restarts – Your computer restarts itself without any user prompt or operating system updates.
  • Blocked access – You cannot access shortcuts or system functions like the Task Manager, Registry, or Control Panel.

Changes to your Internet experience

In addition to altering your system’s performance, a virus might also make unwanted changes to your Internet experience.

  • New home page – Your preferred web browser’s home page has been changed without anyone actually changing it.
  • New toolbars – You notice strange toolbars on your web browser that you didn’t install.
  • No access to web pages – You can’t access reputable sites or pages that might signal that you have been hacked.
  • Flooded with pop-ups – Pop-ups flood your screen -- even when you’re not using the Internet.
  • Redirected – You get redirected to websites that you did not intend to visit. Typically, these redirected sites are laden with malware.

Email indicators

Your nonprofit’s email account is another area that can signal possible malware infections.

  • Receive suspicious messages – You receive email messages that do not have any sender information or subject line.
  • Unknowingly send spam email – Recipients notify you that they have received spam email from your account.

What to do if your computer is infected 

If your computer is infected, there are some steps you can take to address the issue:

  1. Stop using the computer.
  2. If your nonprofit doesn’t have an IT department or personnel, then run a full virus scan through one of the recommended programs like Avast,  McAfee, and Norton.
  3. The antivirus program will provide instructions on how to handle any virus detected.
  4. If this does not solve the problem, then you will need to contact a computer technician to come assess the situation and resolve any issues.

Preventing Malware

As mentioned, a proactive approach is needed to protect your nonprofit from being attacked by computer viruses. The following steps can be taken to prevent these viral threats:

  • Install top-notch antivirus and internet security software on your computers.
  • Make sure all software and operating systems are up to date.
  • Limit the amount of Internet access for personal usage, which includes things like visiting non-work related websites and reading personal emails. By limiting these online activities on your nonprofit’s computers, it decreases the chances that someone will visit a site that’s infected with malware (like popups) or downloads an attachment through a personal email that’s from an unknown sender.
  • Do not open any files from unknown senders or sites.
  • Install or enable a pop-up blocker; do not click on pop-up ads.
  • Make sure your firewalls are turned on or active.
  • Schedule weekly security scans for viruses and other malware. For most programs, like McAfee or Avast, it’s just a few clicks to set up regular scans.

About the Author

With over 30 years in the IT industry, Peter Pane has helped many people overcome their IT problems by providing effective problem solving solutions. Peter is the owner of a Jim's Computer Services franchise in Drouin, Australia. His aim is to help all businesses gain value from all technologies that are available to them for maximum results.