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How Antivirus works
When you first boot up your computer, the anti-virus software will check the memory to ensure no virus is present before the computer starts opening more files.
Checks for Signature
Each virus has its own particular "signature", an identifying sequence of characters in the software code. Anti-virus software uses this signature to identify the virus and how best to delete it from your computer.
Checks Before Opening Files
Anti-virus software allows you to specify which types of files will be checked before opening them. If you don't specify, the software usually defaults to checking executable files, since these are the most common types of files to be infected. However, you can set up the software to check every file you open. By doing so, it will check for viruses before it opens the file, thus ensuring if a virus does exist, it will not be spread.
Notification of Detected Virus
If a virus is found during any of these processes, you will be notified. Most anti-virus software will present a screen asking you how you'd like to proceed, giving you choices and a suggestion of what should be done. It is best to follow what the software advises. It will usually destroy the virus and then try to repair the file. If the file cannot be repaired, it will be deleted.