How to remove malware and spyware from Windows

Due to my profession, friends and family turn to me when they have problems with their computers. 99% of the time, those problems are caused by malware. There are a number of tools that can help you to remove malware and I utilize the well known ones to help me get them back on their feet. Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware is a great piece of software, as is Spybot Search & Destroy, and HijackThis.

However, not getting malware in the first place is usually the best solution!

The internet is like a city. There are certain places in the city you don’t wonder around at night. You wouldn’t wonder around alone in Mogadishu during the day. If some dude walked up to you and said “ppssst, do you want some free [whatever]”, would you follow him down the dark alley and then be surprised when you get mugged? Applying some basic common sense to wondering the breadths of internet is a simple task. The rules are relatively similar to real life. If it’s free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product!

When I remove malware from people’s computers, I am taking a calculated risk in removing that malware using the tools provided. These tools provide no guarantee that the malware is completely gone, in the same way that your doctor makes to guarantee that the anti-biotics will actually work against the “bladder infection” you got at the party last week. There remains a chance that the tools I am using don’t know about a new piece of malware, or have missed a variant of an existing malware program. They are not a panacea!

In reality, the only way to remove malware from your machine is to re-install your operating system. Also remember that the arrogance to believe that Macs and Linux don’t attract malware is also idiotic. Windows, without doubt attracts more malware than anything other OS, but a well patched and up-to-date Windows system used well also has a good chance of staying clean.

Re-installing your operating system is a chore that most of us do not relish. It is time consuming, and for most users it is a scary proposition because they have never done it before. Since talking my friends and family through re-installation over the phone, or via remote access is hell, I don’t do it that often for other people. However, re-installation of your operating system isn’t just for the removal of malware. It is a necessary cleansing process. It is something you need to learn!

If I use the analogy of your bed-sheets; imagine sleeping in the same sheets for 3 years, brushing out the visible dead skin and hair periodically and thinking “oh yes, that will do – clean as a whistle”! The feeling of jumping into fresh clean bed-sheets is wonderful, and you should treat your computer in the same way.

The truth is that general usage of your computer clogs it up, in the same way that regardless of how healthy we stay in life, eventually, most of us get some degree of arterial clogging by cholesterol. We can’t re-install our bodies (yet), but we can wash the sheets, buy a new mattress and we can re-install our operating system!

Re-installing your operating system manually is a laborious process. To make life easier, use a disk imaging solution. There are a range of free options, including several Linux based ones on the Ultimate Boot CD (UBCD), but my favourite, and one of the few pieces of software that I bought from a commercial vendor, rather than using an open source free version is Acronis True Image.

Imaging your drive for a quick re-install is like having a pristine made spare bed kept clean in plastic wrap. Manually re-installation is like throwing the old bed out, going to Ikea, buying a new bed, lugging the packages home, carrying the bits upstairs, unpacking it, building the bed and then finally making the bed ready to sleep in.

The first time you re-install your operating system is sadly going to be the new Ikea bed option. Backup any files and settings you want to keep. Format the drive and installed the vanilla OS. Install the most up-to-date drivers for your hardware. Install ONE good anti-virus program. Download the most up-to-date Windows service pack and then run Windows Update. You can install other pieces of software that might save you time on the next re-install, such as Microsoft Office, but remember that the more you install before you image the drive, the more likely it is that your system will be compromised. Please note that only an idiot would install “that copy of Microsoft Office 2010 that John bought in a Bangkok market”….

Once you are happy with your setup, image the drive. This is now your quick re-install option. Every time you need to re-install, you simply deploy that image over the existing installation (after backing up any personal files and settings beforehand). It is often a good idea to take an image at each stage of the install process. This can allow you re-install at any stage of the process. You’ll be surprised how useful that can be.

Your initial re-installation time is going to take hours. It might even take the full day, if you include the time it takes to backup everything you need before starting. You’ll curse the fact that you saved files all over the place without a care in the world! Maybe next time you should even consider re-mapping My Documents to another partition (and therefore only re-installing the OS partition).

Once the first re-installation is complete and you have you drive images, you can now sit back, with the knowledge that you have the possibility to re-install your machine, to a freshly made version, just as you like it, in a mere half an hour. Wonderful.

Now test it. Try a re-install. You are going to feel a right idiot when you come to re-installing from that image and it doesn’t work! Once you proved that the backup worked, you can copy your personal files back on to the machine.

Now run a virus scan. Then rest easy…