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Utility Spotlight: Scan your PCs for malware

The Microsoft Safety Scanner can detect and remove malware when your standard antivirus software doesn’t do the job.

Lance Whitney

You undoubtedly have standard security software installed on all the networked PCs throughout your enterprise. What happens if a virus goes undetected, though, or if your standard software becomes disabled? That’s when you need backup. That’s where a program like the Microsoft Safety Scanner can come in handy.

This free utility is designed as a standalone virus scanner. You can use it to find and remove malware from a PC running Windows. Because it’s strictly an on-demand scanner, it’s not meant to act as a replacement for your standard security software. You should use it more as a contingency plan.

For example, you can run the Microsoft Safety Scanner if you suspect a virus may have gotten past or even disabled your regular antivirus software. You could also run it on a non-networked computer that might not be fully or properly protected by other security software.

A Microsoft blog written last November offers more details on the tool, along with links to download the 32-bit and 64-bit versions. You won’t have to install the Microsoft Safety Scanner. Simply run the downloaded msert.exe file on the computer you suspect is infected.

Scan to run

After downloading the file and accepting the license agreement, click Next to choose the type of scan you want to run (see Figure 1). The tool gives you three choices: Quick scan, Full scan or Customized scan. The Quick scan scours your memory, Registry and specific folders on your computer where malware might be present. The Full scan checks the entire computer. The Customized scan lets you choose specific folders to scan, in addition to the ones already included in the Quick scan.

The first step is to select the appropriate level of scan

Figure 1 The first step is to select the appropriate level of scan.

You may want to try the Quick scan first because it inspects the most common areas where viruses like to hide and takes less time to run. The tool first inspects your system for malware (see Figure 2). If it doesn’t find any threats, the scanner tells you it detected no viruses, spyware or any other potentially unwanted software (see Figure 3). In that case, you might want to run the Full scan just to be thorough.

The Microsoft Safety Scanner is primarily an anti-malware scanner

Figure 2 The Microsoft Safety Scanner is primarily an anti-malware scanner.

A clean bill of health from a Quick scan means you should consider a Full scan

Figure 3 A clean bill of health from a Quick scan means you should consider a Full scan.

If the tool does find any viruses or other security threats, it keeps a running count and automatically removes them during the scan. In that case, the scanner will tell you that viruses, spyware and other potentially unwanted software were detected and removed. Click on the link to view more-detailed results of the scan to see what specific malware elements were caught and eliminated (see Figure 4).

The Microsoft Safety Scanner can generate a report of the malware it found and removed

Figure 4 The Microsoft Safety Scanner can generate a report of the malware it found and removed.

The Microsoft Safety Scanner is equipped with the same antivirus signatures and technology used in Microsoft Security Essentials and Microsoft Forefront Endpoint Protection. As such, it should prove quite effective at detecting and removing most threats. You should still rely on your regular security suite for full protection. Just keep this tool in your back pocket for emergencies.

The msert.exe file is only around 70MB, so you can easily store it on a USB stick as part of your security arsenal. However, you do have to periodically refresh the file. The antivirus signatures expire after 10 days. You can’t update just the signatures, so you’ll have to download a new copy of the Microsoft Safety Scanner on a regular basis.

Lance Whitney
Lance Whitney is a writer, IT consultant and software trainer. He’s spent countless hours tweaking Windows workstations and servers. Originally a journalist, he took a blind leap into the IT world in the early ’90s.

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