Security

10 free security tools that actually work

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.

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.

2: Malwarebytes

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.

4: WOT

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.

5: WinPatrol

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.

8: Wireshark

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.

9: Nmap

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:

In addition, you can test your firewall at ShieldsUP.


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About

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.

43 comments
AMusnikow
AMusnikow

This 2 year old report about outdated software is being touted by ZDNet Downloads Digest as a Top Five Download on March 18, 2011. Also, "Without doubt, AVG is probably" seems self-contradictory. "Without a doubt" implies "definitely" not "probably," while "probably" implies there is "a doubt."

viralnexxus
viralnexxus

Excellent work Susan! Keep 'em coming.

agmalo
agmalo

Excellent tip. It is important to have freeware at your hand to fix comon problems.

Xynnia
Xynnia

I'm really happy right now because after downloading WinPatrol I've managed to get rid of a rootkit that's been bugging me for MONTHS, throwing up error messages every time I opened a program, or a process was begun, on my computer. I even posted about it on this site, and downloaded Spybot and Malwarebytes and Registry Mechanic and CCleaner and ran F-Secure and upgraded my AVG and all sorts of things to try and get rid of it. But it was WinPatrol's list of programs that run at start-up which got rid of it. It took me a while - I had to check the box labelled 'Display Secret Startup Locations' in order to find the thing but when I saw it I knew I'd got it, and I am now error message free! I also love the little 'dog' which is 'patrolling' my computer on the lookout for suspicious activity. Thank you for this post!!

jdev1
jdev1

I replaced AVG v8 with free Avast v4.8. I am very satisfied with my replacement choice

arjaym
arjaym

Instead of using AVG, use AVIRA antivir as your antivirus. Its works well and updated. AVG is nothing but a crap.

arjaym
arjaym

Instead of using AVG, use Avira anti-vir. It is now the most recent antivirus that is free today. AVG is nothing but a crap.

JeramieH
JeramieH

"Sometimes, these programs hijack your browser homepage, forcing you to browse the Internet through their system" Because it's impossible to type into the address field.

1ntense
1ntense

Has anyone tried SUPERAntiSpyware? It's free and will even remove the most tenatious of malware instances including Virtumonde!

grax
grax

Before one considers any of these programs shouldn't one install an adequate firewall? The article only mentions this as an afterthought and then in conjunction with the excellent Shields Up web site. The firewalls pre-installed with Vista and XP are not satisfactory, being too limited in their functionality. Zone Alarm (Free) has proven satisfactory for many but the offering from Comodo is superior, if a little more intrusive. It also comes with it's own AV but one can choose not to install this if another is preferred.

Bebedo
Bebedo

I highly recommend CCleaner -- it cleans up system files and registry files quickly and cleanly. It also has an easy interface to uninstall programs and remove from startup. Yes, it is free for the basic edition, and it's worth every penny! (www.ccleaner.com) Another I have not used in a while, but I recommended in the past is Lavasoft's Ad-Aware. Together, these 2 tools and a quality security package (Symantec is my preference) were the kings of my domain maintenance.

daytech
daytech

1. Avast! (AVG is becoming a bit too heavy) 2. Malwarebytes 3. Spybot S&D 4. CCleaner 5. Windows Defender 6. SpywareBlaster 7. hijackthis 8. JkDefrag 9. Latest Adobe Flash & Shockwave 10. Latest Sun Java 11. KLite Full CoDec Pack 12. Foxit PDF Reader 13. Disable unnecessary services. 14. Install all windows updates. This is all installed on a clean new Windows build. I tell users if it isn't already on there then they probably don't want/need it. I also provide tutorials in pdf format on the basic use of all of the above. EDIT: forgot to mention I install hijackthis on new systems just so it's there and waiting if there is a problem later which prevents installing it. I've chosen the above through my experience working on thousands of systems. They all just work. The list is constantly changing. I recently dropped AdAware when they released the latest Anniversary Edition. It was cr*p. AVG has become too heavy lately and has hosed a few systems. Just my two cents. Your mileage may vary.

topdj
topdj

The pdf links to another article: Deb Shinders article "10 Security Threats to watch out for in 2009"

joshuawoody_001
joshuawoody_001

the link to the auto signup to the 10 things newsletter doesnt work. can you sign me up? joshuawoody_001@hotmail.com Thanks

leslieho99
leslieho99

You may be interested to know that when I tried to download and install Malwarebytes my Norton Internet Security flagged it as a "misleading program" that may report way more threats than you actually have.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

A bit of malware changes your homepage address and sets the browser to open it initially. You pop open your browser and the page starts to load. You stop the load and type in a different address but your still baked; the payload came in the first bit of the homepage load. Malware has it's care package. The other angle could be your hosts file. When you type in the address field, the browser thinks that address is a different IP. In comes the payload.

NAHumpback
NAHumpback

Yes...regularly use SUPERAntiSpyware. Has worked extremely well for me, very thorough, continous updates to data base - recommend over Spybot.

Bebedo
Bebedo

For those who need a free WinZip application, I highly recommend IZark. For anyone working with drive emulators, Daemon Tools is my choice...

SAStarling
SAStarling

What do y'all think of RegClean? I'm looking for a free registry cleaner, and RegClean is the smallest, least encumbering tool I've found. I don't know if it's really "working" or not though. Any suggestions?

Excelmann
Excelmann

vastly superior to MS defrag which has done more damage than good on at least one occasion. Just for fun start and analyze disk with MS defrag but dont defrag, run the Jk, then analyze with MS a second time. Jk will leave the disk in much better shape than MS could/would.

alan
alan

If the latest Hijackthis is installed on a new system, it may be obsolete by the time it is needed. The USER may be wasting his time producing a log from an obsolete hijackthis - I have seen at least one forum that requires the use of the latest version before it analyses a log. Regards Alan

Greenknight_z
Greenknight_z

I agree with daytech about AVG: I used it for years, then v8.0 came out. It had a much improved GUI, added spyware protection and search link scanning - and it slowed my computer drastically. Avast provides as good or better protection but is much lighter. Avira AntiVir is good, too - but I hear the update servers are rather slow. The paid version provides access to the "premium update servers", so it doesn't have that problem. Also in agreement about AdAware; another app with a bad case of bloat.

Bebedo
Bebedo

This is a great list. I like it so much, I'd make it "required" for all new systems bought for personal use, and I'd be tempted to say for business use as well. Kudos! I was reticent to include AdAware myself. Interesting to read your reservations as well.

ssharkins
ssharkins

Thanks for the list. I'd like to mention that hijackthis is a very powerful tool that requires a bit of skill -- I wouldn't recommend it for the casual user, but if you must, just be careful.

mvpatrick
mvpatrick

Yes. I found that the PDF link was incorrect as well.

Nobscotter
Nobscotter

I would like to offer Finjan as an addition to this list.

mightyteegar
mightyteegar

Malwarebytes has saved me (and my customers) so many times over the past year. I only use it for one-time cleanups, but for that purpose it is *amazing*. The only problem I've had with it is the rare "Error loading database" message, but I tend to install MBAM off my Flash drive and updating the installer has always fixed that problem. I've been around long enough that I never get excited with any new piece of software, no matter how much hype it gets, what it touts or how flashy it appears to be at first glance. But I cannot praise the MBAM team enough for this product and I'll probably buy it in the next couple of months just as a "thank you". Ignore any Norton warnings about MBAM. I'm not sure why Norton would flag it, but it is not a joke tool; it does exactly what it says it will do, and does it well. Another product I've been happy with is Super AntiSpyware, although SAS is a little more aggressive and annoying about upgrading and wanting to add "features". In tandem with MBAM it's pretty awesome, though. One tool I didn't see on here was a little freeware utility I like called Recuva -- does a great job of "undeleting" files.

sfredal
sfredal

This app ran so slow that it froze my PC. Used Revo Uninstaller and cleaned it from my system.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

as read only. And if a user is running as a non-admin, this can prevent these simple hijacks. And, even if they run as an admin, many malware programs will error out trying to write to a locked hosts file, instead of trying to reset permissions.

BHARRELL
BHARRELL

I would have to agree that interpreting the results of both scanners can be difficult for those without a firm understanding of legitimate processes. We have several programs that have to be excluded from the MBAM scanner. However, the benefits far outweigh the little time it takes to make those initial exclusions.

NAHumpback
NAHumpback

Found chinese virus after all other scanners had failed. Highly recommed. Have never had any trouble with updates or functioning. You all know what Norton is all about - plays tricks and lives off bloat. Would never consider using it.

slam5
slam5

As much as MBAM is GREAT, I don't trust a machine once it is infected. Malware authors improve their malware and they usually target what is working in cleaning today. Just look at all the variant of malware that is out there. I generally clean by nuking the machine. People may call that drastic but I call that safe. Besides, it also makes the machine faster too when you clean off all the junk!

coderancher
coderancher

I think I had a similar problem when I tried it on a Vista 64 bit system. According to their website, they only support the 32 bit Vista.

jlogan
jlogan

MBAM has worked for me every single time I have used it except once. That system had an MBR infection/corruption. Every other time I have used it it ran flawlessly and quite quickly.

ssharkins
ssharkins

If you're interested, you might report your problem to Malwarebytes. That's the first complaint of that type that I've heard about that particular utility.

aandruli
aandruli

Had a rootkit that other programs detected but could not remove. MBAM zapped it. It is number one above all others in my book

Nobscotter
Nobscotter

We've been using it free here for over a year.

Greenknight_z
Greenknight_z

It's not just a trial version, you can continue to use Malwarebytes on-demand scanner for as long as you want without cost.

andy.neale
andy.neale

The trial version can be downloaded but it is not 'free', they ask for $24.95 to unlock the real time scanning.

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