Beware of pre-installed malware on your new PC

Photo courtesy Flickr user Mitch Altman

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Everyone knows that the first thing you should do with a new computer is install anti-malware software -- even free tools like AVG and Microsoft Security Essentials are generally deemed just about as good as programs you have to pay for. But what happens if the computer you buy comes with malware pre-installed before you even get a chance to take it out of the box? In that case, things get difficult, since few anti-malware tools are equipped to deal effectively with pre-existing threats.

And increasingly, that's a real concern. Last week, Microsoft announced that it had discovered a criminal conspiracy which has resulted in about 20 percent of the PCs they tested in China shipping with a botnet virus designed to do all sorts of nefarious things, including immediately infecting other PCs, remotely operating webcams, keystroke logging, and launching denial of service attacks.

Microsoft has responded by attempting to disrupt the virus -- known as Nitol -- by filing suit in court. Microsoft alleges that the botnet points to and takes orders from a Chinese site called

Are you at risk? You certainly don't have to live in China to be affected -- according to PC World, Microsoft found that 10 percent of the infections were in the US. So depending upon where and how you buy a computer, you could end up with an infected PC. The best approach, then, is to stick with established, reputable vendors. There's always a chance that a virus could unintentionally end up on a brand-new PC from Dell or Apple, of course -- such a possibility is not impossible -- but you're not going to find a criminal conspiracy to systematically install malware on a PC from such a vendor. Be wary of third-tier vendors and PCs you buy from less reputable sources, though. My personal advice: If you don't completely trust your source when buying a new PC, throw away the hard drive and replace it with a new one, and then re-install Windows from scratch. To quote the movie "Aliens," "It's the only way to be sure."

Photo courtesy Flickr user Mitch Altman