Plenty of solid products are available to help you protect your system — and some of them don't cost a dime. Here's a list of some of the most popular and effective free tools for defending yourself against a variety of threats.
PC security is a hot industry, thanks to forces from the Dark Side. Your system, more than finances, will determine the tools you use to protect it. However, for the casual home or business computer, a number of free security products work well. Almost all of these products offer a paid version with more features, and many users eventually upgrade — which is why these companies can afford to offer free products.
Before you spend your hard-earned money on expensive security products, check out the following free tools.
Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.
1: AVG Anti-virus Free Edition
Without doubt, AVG is probably the most popular, free, antivirus software. It protects your system against both viruses and spyware. Initially, the free version of AVG was stable and effective. As the Dark Side advances, AVG has fallen behind a bit, but, it is still a good product if you combine it with other products (specifically, #2 and #3). Don't depend solely on AVG.
Malwarebytes fights malware — programs designed with malicious intent. Unfortunately, there's no way to uninstall malware once it's installed, because it doesn't show up in the Control Panel. In addition, these files usually install helper programs that re-download then reinstall the malware if you delete it. Malware includes viruses, worms, rootkits, spyware, and trojans. As these products evolve, they are harder to detect and remove. Malwarebytes is one of the best programs, free or not, for detecting and removing malware.
3: Spybot - Search & Destroy
Spyware tracks your Internet usage to create a marketing profile that is then sold, without your knowledge, to advertising companies. If you notice a new toolbar in your browser, most likely you're being tracked by spyware. Sometimes, these programs hijack your browser homepage, forcing you to browse the Internet through their system. Although spyware isn't inherently destructive, it usually affects performance. If your system suddenly slows down, chances are you've been infected. Spybot - Search & Destroy detects and removes spyware, which isn't covered by many other anti-malware applications.
Note: A combination of #1, #2, and #3 provides adequate protection for most single-user systems. They're easy to use and don't require special technical knowledge.
Within the context of the market, WOT is a fairly new offering that adds security, via an add-in, for your browser. It will keep your system safe from online scams, identity, theft, spyware, spam, viruses, and suspect commerce sites. As WOT encounters suspect sites, it alerts you. Of course, you decide whether to continue or not, but at least you go into the transaction forewarned.
WinPatrol is a robust security monitor that alerts you to hijackings, malware attacks, and changes made to your system without your permission. Traditional security programs scan your hard drive, searching for specific threats. WinPatrol uses a heuristic (discovery) behavior to detect attacks and violations by taking snapshots of critical resources and alerting you to changes.
6: Secunia Personal Software Inspector
Most of us have at least one insecure program installed, which puts our systems at risk. Secunia Personal Software Inspector (SPI) scans your PC for insecure programs. It also keeps you informed of updates and patches for your installed programs.
7: Sysinternals Security Utilities
This free utility from Microsoft performs a number of important security functions:
- Lets you know who has access to files, Registry keys, and other Windows services.
- Finds programs configured to run on startup.
- Uses command-line utilities to list processes running on local or remote systems.
- Scans system for rootkits.
- Offers a Department of Defense-compliant secure delete program.
System administrators will appreciate Wireshark, a network protocol analyzer. Security features include, among other things:
- Live capture and offline analysis.
- Display filters.
- Rich VoIP analysis.
- Decryption support for many protocols.
Nmap is a network-mapping utility for network exploration and security auditing. Uses for Nmap include:
- Determining what hosts are available.
- Determining what services hosts are offering.
- Determining what operating systems are running.
- Determining the type of packet filters and firewalls in use.
10: Online scans
If you suspect your system has been infected and your current tools aren't able to deal with it, try one of the following free online scan services:ShieldsUP.
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Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.