We may not think of our computers as friends, but we do expect them to be faithful to us: no other users behind our backs, keeping things open and honest, and no secrets. Unfortunately, our computers sometimes cheat on us via a pair of phenomena known as zombies and botnets.
A zombie computer is one that is controlled by an outside source. A botnet is the computer equivalent of a zombie army—a massive array of computers all controlled by hackers or criminal organizations. Usually, this happens without the computer’s legitimate owner being aware of the problem until it’s already in progress. But, as in any relationship, there are signs when something is wrong.
So how can you tell if your computer is having issues? Most zombie computers get that way by being infected with malware—a virus or other harmful program that allows outsiders a sort of back door entry into your operating system. So the signs of a virus or spyware attack and those of an incipient tendency to join a botnet are the same. Be concerned if you see these symptoms of trouble:
Now, some of these problems may not be caused by botnets or any other kind of malware. Recently, I had a PC whose screen flashed on and off and appeared to be cycling through icons on my desktop. After two malware scans and some detective work, it turned out to be a problem with my screen’s video driver software.
So, if your computer has these symptoms, don’t panic, but do run a thorough virus scan.
Why Zombie Computers and Botnets Are Bad, and What to Do About Them
Aside from the inconvenience of a malfunctioning computer, botnets are bad across the board. Unbeknownst to you, your computer could be participating in the kind of denial of service attack that seriously affected online bank sites not that long ago. Your email address could be associated with spamming (sending malicious emails) and become unusable. And you could be sending malware via your seemingly trusted email account to friends and relatives—never an endearing move. Finally, whatever program is turning your PC into a zombie could also be stealing the personal and financial information you enter. Ouch. Talk about adding insult to injury.
What can you do? Start your computer in safe mode. (Learn to do this by typing “start safe mode” and the version of Windows you’re using into Google; for example: “start Windows 8 safe mode.”) Update your virus program and do a full scan. And then scan it again using another program you’ve installed or a free, cloud-based antivirus scanner. Bitdefender, Malwarebytes, and Microsoft Safety Scanner all offer free on-demand virus scans.
If symptoms still persist, contact a computer pro. You may have to reformat your hard drive to get rid of the infection completely, and that can be a complicated, time-consuming process.
Your best bet to avoid a cheating computer? Be smart and safe when you go online. Use a good Internet security program; don’t download files from an unproven source, and don’t open up unsolicited or unusual emails or email attachments. These basic steps will go a long way towards keeping your computer for your eyes only.