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How to Tell if You Have Been Hacked

written by: Brian Nelson•edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 11/25/2009

Have you ever wondered if your computer has been hacked? Would you know what to look for? These days, hacking is subtle. An examination of your computer may yield clues, or better yet, give you some piece of mind.

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    Hacking 21st Century Style

    Technically, computers can be compromised by numerous types of electronic infections. Everything ranging from a virus, to a trojan, to spyware, or other malware can infect your computer via email, websites, or just from being on the network. (Though there are differences between these infections, we’ll use the term virus generically to refer to them all in this article.)

    You’ve seen the commercial where the woman opens an email message and her computer screen goes blank except for a cartoonish guy who taunts her by saying “You’ve unleashed the virus. They’ll soon trace it back to you…” That may be how computer viruses used to work, but times have changed.

    These days, computer viruses are big business. Whether used to gain control of your PC for sending spam or attacking Internet sites (this is called a bot), or if used to quietly capture your keystrokes and passwords, computer viruses are much more stealthy. After all, if you don’t know that it is there, then you won’t get rid of it.

    The good news is that virus scanners have become commonplace. Simple viruses that used to spread like wildfire are stomped out before they infect even a handful of computers. In fact, those viruses that take over your computer simply to mock you, are increasingly rare because they are easily detected by any virus scanner around.

    The bad news is that virus writers never stop innovating. Every security patch or update you install is designed to keep them out of a newly discovered chink in the armor. Since it is so hard to get a good computer infection going for very long, when they do it, they do it as thoroughly and as stealth-like as they possibly can.

    So, how do you tell if your computer has been compromised by a virus? Of course, a virus scanner is the number one defense, but if the virus got through or is disguised well enough, maybe your virus scanner is missing it. Or, maybe you just aren’t running your virus scanner often enough. Either way, it is possible to have a computer virus without being alerted. So, how can you tell?

    Chances are good that you won't notice the new virus, at least not right away. But, over time, things might start to not add up on your system. Look for hard drive space disappearing (viruses often use and spread through temp files), abnormal memory usage (should the spoolsv.exe process really be using 48,000K of memory?), and of course, unexplained crashes or slower computer response times are all common ailments.

    Once you suspect, what should you do? Check out Part 2 below.

Computer Security Versus Computer Viruses and Other Attacks

A tech savvy computer user gets infected by a virus and walks you through how to tell if you've been infeced when your virus scanner is quiet and what to do about it. Plus, utilities and resources to help keep your computer secure.
  1. How to Tell if You Have Been Hacked
  2. A Tech Savvy User Gets Infected: Troubleshooting Computer Hacker Attacks