Who hasn’t used a USB stick at least once in their life? The ubiquitous USB stick is the ultimate data carrier: small, cheap and convenient, with sufficient storage capacity for most purposes.
Even as cheap – even free – online storage has threatened to trample all over the USB stick’s USP, tens of millions are still produced and sold every year. One reason is that their physical nature makes them feel safer than vulnerable, hackable online options. But is that true? Well, yes and no.
In this article, we will explain the dangers of using a USB stick, but we’ll also tell you how to neutralize those dangers so you can continue to use your USB devices without risk.
Why the USB Stick is Vulnerable to Viruses
The USB stick is, generally speaking, not a very monogamous device. If you use the USB stick to transfer files from one PC to the other, which is the most basic ‘relationship’, monogamy is already out the window.
In fact, the USB stick might come into contact with many different PCs, and much like what can happen to humans, USB sticks can contract infections and transfer those to the next PC, which may be yours. Unless, of course, you protect your PC!
Not many people see the USB drive as a potential security threat, so we feel it’d be good to fill you in on the potential dangers that you risk exposing yourself to, and how to make sure you won’t suffer any undesired consequences.
USB Security Protocol
Working with a USB stick is so convenient, you’d easily forget the risks that are lurking around the corner. Because if it is so easy to transfer data via a USB drive, transferring a virus is, theoretically speaking, just as easy.
Obviously, we don’t want it to be. But in order to make it as difficult as possible for a virus to make its way onto your PC via a USB stick, you should stick to a certain security protocol which at the very least prevents a flash drive from uploading a virus to your PC the second you connect it. How?
Preventing Your Computer Being Infected by a USB Drive
First of all, as a general precaution, never open your USB device via auto run or via My Computer.
- Disable Auto Run. Viruses are often hiding in a USB drive’s autorun.inf file, which basically means the virus is automatically uploaded to the receiving PC the second the drive is inserted into the USB slot of the PC. Disabling the auto run feature will at the very least prevent a virus from automatically finding its way onto your PC. Disabling the auto run feature does not find the virus for you, though. You will still need to locate the file(s) and delete them.
- Open your USB drive by right-clicking it, then click explore or type its drive letter in the windows address bar to prevent any script from running.
Preventing Your USB Drive Being Infected by a Computer
Naturally, security measures are necessary on the other side of the spectrum as well. As much as you don’t want your PC to be infected with a USB virus, you don’t want your USB drives or other external devices to contract something nasty like a virus from another, unprotected PC.
- Activate the Write Protect mode on the USB drive. The Write Protect mode will prevent any program on your PC, viruses included, from writing on your external drive. The drive will actually be in read only mode, which is convenient when it comes to blocking content, but less convenient when you’re trying to write/save something onto the drive. Make sure you keep track of what you’re doing so you won’t make mistakes!
- Alternatively, there are free tools available online that Write Protect your external drive in case it’s not equipped with the option to choose the Write Protect mode. Write Protector tools are easy to work with and only take a couple of clicks to set up. Definitely recommended if you value the safety of your USB stick.
The Most Common USB Virus: the Shortcut Virus
A well known USB virus is the so called Shortcut Virus, which is very easy to recognize. If you plugged a USB stick into your PC and notice that its contents are missing, but seem to have been replaced with shortcuts, it is safe to say your USB drive is infected with a virus – most likely the USB Shortcut Virus.
This virus manipulates the contents of the stick, but it doesn’t actually delete files. It is a typical Trojan type virus that consolidates every file on your external devices and stores it into a hidden folder. This procedure is followed by the creation of a USB drive shortcut.exe file for each of your original files.
Your files are actually hiding and seem to have been replaced with shortcuts. You only have one option if you want to see your files, which is clicking the shortcut link. From that point on, the real trouble starts: as soon as you click one of the Shortcut executable files, the virus starts installing malicious applications. Recovering the files and getting rid of the infection are two equally important issues to take care of.
My PC is infected. How do I take care of the USB Virus Removal?
Good news: you can recover your data and remove the infection from your drive and computer with a few commands and some free tools.
How to do that, falls outside the scope of this article, but the following articles should help you solve all your USB virus related problems and take care of the USB virus removal:
Protect Your PC and External Devices & Prevent Infections
Of course, you can make sure you beat the risk of infection by taking timely countermeasures. You really should take the suggestions we made earlier into consideration, because those will prevent a lot of potentially bad stuff happening to your PC and external devices.
The best advice we can give you is really simple: use a special USB virus scanner, or make sure your antivirus software includes an option to scan external devices.
All the top antivirus software distributors offer software solutions for this, so you can decide for yourself what suits your needs best.
McAfee VirusScan USB for example, is considered to be one of the best products available today. This particular USB antivirus scanner is fully automated and updates itself automatically every day. Since it runs silently in the background, it doesn’t interfere with any of your computer activity. McAfee’s competitors offer comparable solutions.
Take your pick, choose the provider you like best and keep your PC, your important files, and the contents of your external USB devices safe at all times!