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Friends Don't Share Viruses

Second reason to be cheerful? My computer-assistance business is taking off! My client, let's call him “Ray,” is one of the nicest, most straight-up and loyal dudes you'll ever meet. He's also rather IT-illiterate; between that and a mate of Ray's, whom we shall call “Ron,” Ray's PC was riddled with viruses when he asked me to look at it. The process so far may prove instructive if you're not the most savvy when it comes to computers.

As far as I'm concerned, the only truly effective way to cure a virus-ridden PC is to reformat the hard drive and reinstall the base operating system from scratch. In Ray's case, this is easier said than done. Ray's PC features a pair of 320GB serial-ATA hard drives connected to a RAID card in one of the motherboard's PCI slots. This means that, to reformat and reinstall Windows XP, you need to load the third-party drivers for the RAID card onto a floppy disc because Windows XP's install program doesn't recognise the card.

One problem: The floppy drive in Ray's PC was not only not connected to the motherboard, but it also didn't work. Sure, $200.00 might be a bargain price for a PC, but all the components should still fucking operate properly. I grant you that the floppy drive might have failed since, but the missing IDE cable makes me doubt that.

Thankfully, I have a spare drive and IDE cable lying around, so that fixed that. But then we had trouble with the drivers. Using my Windows XP Service Pack 2 disc and the older of the two drivers listed on the RAID card manufacturer's website seemed to fix the problem, but somehow the RAID card designated one of the two hard drives as a secondary, and that one was at the top of the list of drives to install Windows to in the setup screen. Which meant that, come restart, unless the Windows XP disc was in the CD-ROM drive, the computer didn't see a bootable partition.

Okay, I thought, no problem; all I need to do is start all over again. Wrong. The drivers that had worked fine the first time suddenly stopped working the second time around.

This is the sort of weird shit that gets me thinking, “hardware fault”. Given the humidity we've had in Cairns over the past few months, computer internals are attracting dust and mould; I've discovered that the solution to some hardware faults is to strip the case out and clean it and every component before reassembling.

With this treatment in mind, I took Ray's PC home with me a couple of weeks ago and gave him Vickie's old desktop, Maria, as a replacement. She works, but having spent the last twelve months or so up in our loft in a plastic bag, she's not the best. The drivers for her video and sound card don't recognise their hardware, so she was creaking along a bit under XP (I think she might need the same treatment soon). Still, Ray had web and IM access, which is what he really needs for the time being.

One downside of the recent rainlessness is that I've put the time I was planning to spend on stripping and cleaning Ray's PC into taming our backyard jungle instead. It's a bugger, as I had a panicked call from Ray last night. He said he was having virus trouble again and that a Windows antivirus program wanted him to pay to fix the problem. This was odd, as Avast, the antivirus program I'd installed, is freeware. Then Ray told me that Ron had been “fiddling” with Maria.

I started worrying, as Ray has told me about Ron's prior attempts to “fix” Ray's PC (with little success). I drove over to Ray's where he showed me the virus warning Maria was giving him. The Engrish in the warning immediately told me that one of those fake virus programs, the ones that tell you you have a virus so you'll hand over your credit card details – had installed itself on Maria. How, though was the puzzler – until I noticed that Ray was logged in under the Admin account.

Whenever I rebuild my computer using Windows XP, I set up two passworded user accounts : A “limited access” account under my (or the primary user's) name for day-to-day use and a master administrator account with full rights. It's a security measure; if you're running the limited account, programs can't install without administrator rights unless you explicitly give them that right (which needs the Admin password), which ought to stop Trojans from sneaking in unnoticed. I explained to Ray when setting his PC up that I figured it would be a handy measure until he got a bit more IT-savvy; he wouldn't inadvertently install anything dodgy in the meantime.

Ray told me that Ron had asked to borrow Ray's Internet, then asked Ray to log him in as Admin, explaining that the limited account wasn't letting him use Yahoo (yeah, right). Despite Ron's less-than-successful history of fiddling with Ray's PC, Ray, trusting soul that he is, entered the password and let Ron go for his life.

If the Firefox browser history is any indication, Ron then visited half the free porn sites under the sun.

In case you don't know, free porn sites are a prime target for virus writers; plenty of users who don't know a firewall from a fungal cream visit every hour. In theory the firewall I had set up should have provided an additional buffer, but Ron might have specifically downloaded a programme, something Maria has to treat as legitimate traffic, with a virus hidden within – a Trojan. Thus the two-user scheme I'd set up, preventing installs.

I explained that not only had Ray let Ron download a Trojan onto his system but that said Trojan was messing with Windows' basic functions, like disabling access to the “Add or Remove Programs” option under Control Panel so we couldn't get rid of it (even if we did have access, I'd worry that there was still some part of the Trojan lurking on the system somewhere). In other words, Maria was in about the same shape as Ray's PC was when he first asked me to take a look at it.

Fixing it was going to take another reformat and rebuild, something I didn't have time or energy (having dug a garden bed out that afternoon; see previous post) for last night. The problem: Poor Ray is in a situation where he absolutely has to have ready Internet access (why Ray didn't think of this before handing Ron the keys to his PC, I'll chalk up to inexperience). I figured there were a couple of things I could do for him: Take him home so he could perform a couple of urgent tasks via my PC and install Linux on Maria.

Of the distributions I had with me, I chose Linux Mint version 8; the user interface is a touch more friendly then Ubuntu and the basic install is more likely to be able to open or play common file formats. I left it to install while I took Ray home, where Vickie gave him the rounds of the table for breaking his promise to not let any porn on Maria, and by the time we got back to his place Ray had a working, Internet-capable computer again.

I was so enthused by my success that I stayed up until midnight installing Mint on the empty space on my own PC; in fact, I'm posting this from it now. More on that later, though. In the meantime I intend to give Ray's PC the cleanout I've been meaning to this weekend, and I have the feeling that installing Linux Mint might even solve the booting problem without having to reinstall XP.

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