Uh oh. You clicked on a email attachment a little too fast and now things seem funky with your computer. Maybe a new toolbar has popped up on your browser. Maybe you can hear your computer fans running like a jet engine even when you're not doing anything intensive. Now your friends are asking you about the strange emails you keep sending them.
Yup, you've been hacked.
Being the victim of malware or a virus sucks. It's a violation of your privacy and an attack on your security. But, it doesn't mean your computer is irreparable. At least not if you take the right steps. Here is what you need to do get your computer cleaned out and running like it should.
Quarantine your computer
First thing first, disconnect your machine from your network and make sure your other devices are secure while you deal with the issue. Pull the plug out of your modem, turn off wi-fi, and keep everything off the grid for a bit. If your computer is the victim of a botnet hack, this will sever the connection between it and whoever infected it.
Diagnose the issue
Run your anti-virus program and see if it can pinpoint the culprit. Ideally, you'll also want to run anti-spyware and rootkit programs as well to address the full spread of potential compromises.
This process can be made much easier and reliable if you're able to remove the hard drive of the infected computer and run it on another computer as a secondary (non-booting, you don't want to infect the other machine) drive. This will allow you to download anti-virus updates and ensure that you're scanning with the most up-to-date tool available.
Back-up your files
Make sure you transfer all your essential documents, photos, videos, and others to a secondary storage device. This can be as simple as transferring your docs to a thumbdrive, burning a disk (if you still have a disk drive), or uploading them to a cloud based storage solution. Whatever the case, you'll want to be sure you don't lose any important work or irreplaceable memories while dealing with the problem. Cause the next part is going to get nasty.
Nuke your hard drive
You know that scene in Aliens? Well, when it comes to your PC, reformatting your drive is "the only way to be sure.” The best way to ensure that your machine is not compromised is to get rid of everything and give it a clean start. Remember, anti-virus programs are designed around prevention. Once infected, even a virus removal that gives your system a clean bill of health can't be entirely trusted.
Once you've reformatted, it's time to reinstall your OS and rebuild. Make sure you have the latest updates and install only from clean, trusted sources (official disks, websites, etc) to make sure you don't wind up back in exactly the same fix.
Learning from disaster
Now that this happened once, don't let it happen again. First, start by making a complete backup of your freshly scrubbed PC. This way, if the worst should happen, you can boot from a clean state and speed up the recovery process.
This is also the time to adopt some better security habits. Create regular backups of your files and store them in a secondary location (external hard drive, second computer, the cloud, etc). Set your anti-virus program and OS to auto-update security patches. Be more scrutinous about random email attachments and cautious about what you download and from where.
PC security doesn't have be a huge chore. It's mostly about adopting a few good habits and staying aware. Once you've been burned once, don't let it happen again!