Local Organization Warns of Growing Computer Malware/Virus Threats

After being on the backburner for years, home computer virus threats are on the upswing again warns a Westchester community computer non-profit organization, which suggests protective measures. The Westchester PC Users Group (WPCUG) alerts that scammers, hackers and other bad actors increasingly employ fake emails, fake alerts that pop up when viewing legitimate websites, telephone scams and anti-virus marketers peppering cyberspace with hard-sell sales messages.


All these literally touch all the homes in the region—and particularly try to trick untrained senior citizens into downloading malicious software.


WPCUG president Pierre Darmon, who is a computer consultant based in White Plains and a former career IBMer, senses a false sense of security by home users who think that computer viruses are aimed only at big companies and big industry. Not so, says Darmon. For example, he says that home users on websites can encounter a takeover of their web browser software by scammers with large-size messages such as “your computer may be infected” and other chilling warnings.


“This is scary because it makes you think that you’ve lost control of your computer since it is a full-screen message,” says Darmon. “And there’s a worry that the scammers may have done some more serious damage in the background.”


In reality, the scammers have only put the user’s browser in full screen mode that makes it difficult to close the page. WPCUG advises that users can make a safe exit most of the time by pressing simultaneously on their keyboards the keys Alt-F4 (on Windows) and Cmd-Q (on macOS). That closes the browser altogether and lets users regain control of their computer; after such force-closing, the browser can then be reopened.


Browsers are software to surf the internet such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Edge for Windows, and Apple Safari for macOS. Malware (a contraction of the phrase “malicious software”) is software that is harmful. One type of malware is a virus, self-replicating software designed to spread from computer to computer. Viruses typically infect computers through “phishing” (think of “fishing”) whereby users accept a computer prompt ostensibly from reputable sources that really is from scammers; scammers seek unauthorized access to digital devices such as a home computer, often with the aim of hijacking online banking or credit information to make purchases.


“Once you let someone with bad intentions into your machine, it’s usually downhill from there,” says Jonathan Hauff, a computer consultant based in Larchmont who is a former WPCUG president and current WPCUG workshop moderator. Regarding telephone calls from scammers, “these are not nice people, though they try to sound nice on the phone. It’s a con game to them. They really are heartless criminals out to take advantage of people, especially older people” who are often too trusting.


Here are the growing malware issues impacting home computer and personal devices:


• When in doubt about a phone or computer message for a bank transaction or online purchase such as with Amazon, don’t use links or phone numbers provided. If from scammers, those connections are not legitimate. Instead, independently dial or connect to a bank/retailer website to check the real status of an account.


• Beware of popups messages when browsing websites urging software updates, which are sometimes legitimate but also can be phishing disguised to download malware.


• Some computer security firms say that they can remove ransomware, which may be true; but once a ransomware executes a computer takeover, just removing some of the core malware software may not unlock computers and data.


• Sometimes legitimate antivirus companies blast hard-sell messages online to push consumers into buying high-price protection. WPCUG recommends simple anti-virus software from reputable companies that typically is offered in a free version to home users or upgraded “premium” version at modest cost.


• In what is a rare scam from the most sophisticated hackers, computers infected by malware can be used as listening devices to literally picking up sounds keystrokes from other devices within audio range. These aim to capture passwords being typed and are referred to as an “air gap,” a reference to two computers that are not directly connected.


• It’s advised to check with professionals if encountering persistent malware on personal devices, because simply making malware disappear from screens doesn’t necessary mean it’s really gone.


The Westchester PC Users Group (https://www.wpcug.org/) was established in 1981 as a non-profit that conducts workshops and serves as a sounding board for practical knowledge regarding computers, and mobile devices.