Every computer connected to the internet is vulnerable to viruses, fraud and infiltration. This leaves our pockets prey to the software protection industry's heavy charges to keep us safe.
Yet it's possible to get legal, professional-quality antivirus and other protective software, absolutely free.
In this guide
Always be careful to check any software you put on your computer is suitable and compatible with your existing set-up. No liability can be accepted for any individual problems caused by acting upon the information given.
Getting software to protect your computer is, unfortunately, a must these days. But before you get there, you can take simple actions to up your protection without any new programs:
Keep your software up-to-date
Even if your computer comes off the shelf with a level of protection, threats change daily. So it's imperative you keep it up-to-date or else it's useless. Get instructions on how to update Windows, or set your computer to download updates automatically.
For Windows 7, just click on "Start", go to Control Panel and click the "System and Security" icon, then go to the Windows Updates section where you can toggle automatic updates on or off. The same goes for dedicated antivirus software (see the top free protection below). Keep it up-to-date, and do a full system scan once a week.
Users of Apple Macs (and Linux) have slightly less to worry about in terms of viruses, as there still aren't so many floating about for them. Nonetheless, Mac users should grab free antivirus software too.
Protect your identity online
With more and more of us using the web to bank online and do other sensitive things, coming up with solid passwords is more important than ever.
It may seem obvious, but don't use the same login for lots of sites. If one falls into the wrong hands, your whole online life is up for grabs. Remembering lots of different ones is tricky, so try picking one and just add a few letters to it related specifically to each site you're logging into.
Ensure you change your passwords frequently. Use a free password generator to get a completely random, but secure password.
Switch it off!
Switching your computer off when you aren't using it doesn't just save energy, it stops others accessing it while you're away. At the very least, disconnect your broadband when you don't need the web.
While your PC's on, and after you've been browsing, is a prime time for malware (malicious software) attacks. So switching off is a good preventative measure.
Don't open unknown email attachments
Most web crime still happens via email, so be on guard when checking yours. Don't open any attachments you're not expecting, or click any random links you find in the text (see the Phishing Scams guide).
If you're unsure if a site's legit, whack the name into Google and see what comes up. It may be listed as a bad 'un.
Only download software from trusted websites
Looking for a piece of software? Find out which company makes it first and then go to its site to get it, rather than a third party site found via Google. For smaller free- or shareware programs, try using big sites like Download.com, rather than just getting them from anywhere that shows up.
For advanced downloaders (OK, nerds): when using
If you're not protected and someone uses your computer to get passwords, or accesses your bank account or other financial products, you may find it harder to get a refund.
The burden of proof's on the bank to show you didn't act with care, but it's best to be safe. For more on what to do if you think you've been defrauded, read the ID Fraud Protection guide.
What are the main threats?
Threats to your computer come in different guises with various funky names. Collectively, they're considered malicious software, or "malware". The main types are:
Viruses. Hidden programs that wreak havoc
These are transmitted via websites, email attachments, directly over the internet or via any other removable media. They hide in applications or files and spread from computer to computer, generally wreaking havoc wherever they get the chance to.
Trojans. Bugs within harmless-looking files
Trojan (horses) are hidden within a harmless-looking file (eg, a picture of a celebrity) or progam (ironically, they're often dressed up as antivirus tools). They aim to trick the user into installing malicious software, like spyware or adware.
Worms. Can drill in via open web connections
Worms take advantage of any open internet connection. They try to sneak in and replicate on the computer. Once loaded, they often start to send spam email from your computer without your knowledge.
It's often about big, organised crime
It's a common misconception that producing computer viruses is the domain of angst-ridden web kids with little to do, showing off to their equally reclusive peers. While there may have been some truth in this at the beginning, and of course it still happens, these days it's often about big criminal business. Why would they do it?
Stealing your information
Cracking into your computer can reveal a breadth of information about you. It could include your bank details for ID fraud or for just directly taking your cash.
Grabbing your email contacts
A program could grab all the emails in your address book/contacts list to find real addresses to sell to spammers. These people may well then be emailed from your address.
Using your computer to threaten websites
Some viruses allow your computer to be controlled in order to create a 'DDOS' attack. This is where a website is closed down due to simulated, simultaneous use by billions of users. This can be for political reasons, a ransom, to hurt competitors or "just for fun".
Many of the people whose computers cause this are unaware it's happening, as viruses are controlling their web connections. MoneySavingExpert.com has been hit by such an attack. Ironically, some of the people denied access for three days could've been contributing to the closure via hidden viruses on their systems.
Pay for antivirus software from biggies like Symantec/Norton or Kaspersky and it'll cost around £50 per year. Yet you can get free software which, while not quite as effective as paid-for programs, still keeps on top of threats. Regardless of which route you take, heed the following:
Hackers develop new bugs constantly. All these free antivirus services offer regular updates, so make sure you get them!
It's not just about how up-to-date your software is. If you're not using it, what's the point? Try to fit in a full "on-demand" scan (that is, one where the virus scanner flicks through all the files on your hard drive) once a week. This should make sure nothing slips through the net.
Antivirus: Free PC software downloads
McAfee online banking suite. Normally paid for - free to MBNA cardholders
All MBNA cardholders can get a year's free access to McAfee's Online Banking Suite, which includes its well-rated pro antivirus, virus and spyware programs, and more. It's normally £60. If you don't cancel before the complementary year's up, it takes £30 for the next year's access (50% off RRP).
Kaspersky. Normally paid for - free to Barclays customers
Barclays' online banking customers can grab a free 12-month Kaspersky Internet Security antivirus subscription (RRP £50). It comes very highly-rated by various tech publications, so it's a must-have if you bank with Barclays. It's renewable free of charge after the first year - you just have to re-activate it.
Launched in 2009, Microsoft's Security Essentials antivirus package continues to improve. The package is completely free to users of "genuine Windows machines", which means it'll verify your copy. Two versions are available, for Vista and Windows 7.
The software's unobtrusive and provides quick, and increasingly comprehensive protection from viruses, trojans, rootkits, and spyware. Antivir below provides marginally better cover in tests. Yet most casual Windows users won't go wrong with Microsoft's own offering, as it feels and runs like part of the regular operating system rather than an added extra.
Avast! 8 - totally free
Alwil's Avast! antivirus is now in version 8, which boasts an improved interface and better detection. So much so, it's leapfrogged Avira's Antivir in our rankings.
Avira Antivir - totally free
The free antivirus software of choice for many techies, Antivir's won many tech publications' free antivirus round-ups by providing both the most thorough and fastest software protection. If you have the know-how, it'll do everything you want it to, but it's best for those that know their way around a PC.
AVG Free - totally free
With a long history, and lots of modifications to provide a better service, the protection provided by the AVG Free antivirus current version is reasonably thorough, though it doesn't offer any real tech support.
AVG is unobtrusive, doesn't use too many resources, and will regularly auto-update. It includes LinkScanner - real-time threat detection, which checks links out when you're surfing the web (on Firefox and Internet Explorer only), and marks unsafe threats with red flags.
LinkScanner is also available separately as an 4MB-sized plugin for those who already use another antivirus (though check compatibility).
Sophos Antivirus for Mac
Simple to use, Sophos antivirus for Mac runs in the background while you work, scanning files for threats whenever your Mac opens them. It's had fab reviews in techie publications, but has been known to slow down some systems.
ClamXAV 2 Antivirus for Mac
Derived from the open source virus checker ClamAV, ClamXAV 2 antivirus adds a user interface for Mac OSX, so it's accessible to non-tech heads. Though it's free, it accepts donations towards its upkeep. It's a tad techie, but it's great if you want to scan files for Windows threats before sending them onwards.
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Antivirus software isn't the only protection your computer needs. If you don't have a firewall, you're leaving all your files and sensitive information vulnerable. Effectively:
Antivirus = the border patrol checking what's allowed in.
Firewall = the fence stopping it getting there in the first place.
So why aren't we all going firewall mad? That's because these days we tend to connect to the web via a router, rather than just a modem, and routers provide a hardware firewall. Ensure yours is switched on and set to a high enough security level. Consult the manual or search online for the make and model number if you don't know how to check.
While you're there, check your router password has been changed from its default. You'd be surprised at how many connections are hacked (and how much havoc wreaked) simply because the standard password hasn't been changed. Spend a little time to get your settings right here, as router firewalls give a higher level of protection than software ones.
If you don't connect via a router, or you're just big on online security, here are the top freebies:
Firewalls: Free PC software downloads
Windows XP, Vista and 7 have a firewall built in, which should be enough for most people (especially those who already have router firewalls), but make sure it's switched on and your copy of Windows is up-to-date. The firewall can be set on low, medium and high levels of protection.
If the Windows firewall is set on high, you may need to spend some time tweaking its settings in the Control Panel to stop it becoming a nuisance. By default, it'll stop you downloading files over MSN Messenger, and it'll block a whole load of programs that download from the web.
Check Point's ZoneAlarm free firewall comes highly-commended by techie website Cnet. The latest version offers quieter outbound protection, behavioural detection, automatic wi-fi security setting activation, anti-phishing protection, and 2GB of online storage for free. It's light on resources and heavy on security, so worth checking out.
Outpost Firewall Free Edition
Agnitum's Outpost Free Edition offers the ideal combination of top protection and user-friendliness. It's a totally free product so there are no nag screens to contend with, and comes highly rated by numerous tech sites.
Comodo Personal Firewall
It's totally free but you'll need to register and activate the licence by email within 30 days of installation. While Comodo outperforms many similar offerings, it can be pretty intrusive, especially if you just want a firewall that does its job quietly.
Firewalls: Free Mac downloads
Built-in: Mac Firewall
Since the early days, all web-ready Macs have come with some sort of firewall as standard. Which yours offers depends on what version of OSX you're using; to check your settings; go to Preferences > Security.
Luckily, it's good - as far as we can see there are no other decent free firewalls for Macs.
If you know or use any other free antivirus packages or firewall software, please share them in the forum discussion.
There are other types of malware you can find on your computer. Often legitimate developers will design programs that have useful functions, but they'll also provide the owner with useful information about you or try to sell you things. They fall into two main categories:
Adware. Pop-ups that try to sell you things
Adware is malware that sneaks onto your machine and opens up pop-up windows that sell you things - often, but not exclusively, gambling sites.
It's easy to assume these are related to the site you were visiting, yet often they aren't - it's adware. If you've closed your browser, but pop-up windows still appear on your desktop, chances are you've been infected.
Spyware. It tracks what you do
Spyware is a more dangerous, less noticeable type of malware. It covertly grabs information from your PC and sends it back to its leader out in the cyber-ether.
Owing undoubtedly to their potential for criminal money-making, malicious spyware programs have become much more advanced in recent years, to the extent that some of the top spyware removers of yesterday can no longer cope.
Basic anti-adware/spyware measures:
To put your mind at rest you'll need to download some extra software. In the meantime, there are a couple of basic ways to fight back:
Use a pop-up blocker
If you're being troubled by adware, use a pop-up blocker to alleviate the symptoms while you find a solution. Be aware though, that not all pop-ups are bad - some sites open new windows in this way. If you want to see them, hold down CTRL while clicking the link.
Check whether you allowed the spyware
There are a couple of legit spyware programs too. If you allow it to, Google's Desktop can send info on what you've been searching back to Google, and Alexa's toolbar can do the same. In both cases these firms want to monitor your computer to help develop their products with data about people's searching habits.
Whether you allow this depends on how you want the information to be used. It's mostly harmless but does mean someone, somewhere has access to your searching habits.
Be careful when downloading
The usual way for ad/spyware programs to get on your computer is by attaching themselves to other things you download. So make sure you check the veracity of download sources before getting files.
Delete programs you don't use
Use the add/delete function on your Control Panel to get rid of any programs you don't need anymore - they may be corrupted.
Like most antivirus tools, spyware removers work by comparing what's on your machine to a list of known offenders. As ever, the top anti-ad/spyware programs are commercial, but that doesn't necessarily mean you need to buy them. Try these first:
Ad/spyware removal: Free PC downloads
Ad-Aware's great at detecting and removing malware, and this new version works even faster than previous ones. On the downside though, most of its features are locked in the free version. If you make it your primary tool, you won't be fully protected.
While the free version doesn't provide real-time protection or scheduled updates, Anti-Malware is still powerful enough to make a big difference. As a lightweight program, it's pretty quick too.
Spybot - Search & Destroy
Spybot's been going for a while, and while it has a pretty long list of features, it's always received mixed feedback. It's fairly processor-hungry, so if your computer's already slow it'll be an unwelcome addition.
Ad/spyware removal: Free Mac downloads
SecureMac's MacScan software is built to detect, isolate and remove spyware apps like keystroke loggers, as well as blacklisted cookies saved on your system. This one's a 30-day free trial; you'll pay $40 to upgrade if you like it, or else just delete once the trial's finished.
AVG LinkScanner Mac Edition
Not really an anti-spyware tool, but AVG's LinkScanner is worth a look for Mac users. It uses real-time threat detection which checks links out when you're surfing the web (Firefox and Internet Explorer only), and marks unsafe ones with red flags so you know not to click them.
Want dodgy Viagra or a fake watch? Want to invest in non-existent shares or visit fraudulent pornography sites? Or do you just want to click on a fake email from your bank to have your password stolen? You may think it unlikely anyone would say yes, but if that were true, criminals wouldn't bother sending out the emails. Read the full Phishing Scam guide for more.
For most of us, spam is time-consuming to wade through and potentially dangerous. Sadly, while you can register to stop junk mail or phone calls (see Junk the Junk guide), the same isn't true with spam email. Still, here are some dos and don'ts to keep the spammers at bay:
Spam dos and don'ts
DON'T write your email address online
Only give out your email address to people you know. Don't post it on public internet forums (including MoneySavingExpert.com's) or chat rooms. Spammers often use software robots, or "bots", to read all forums, store any emails and spam them.
DO set up email rules if possible
If you download your emails to a computer, eg, using Microsoft's Outlook, you can create rules to stop common spam by entering key words, eg, VIAGRA, so those emails are automatically filtered. But spammers try to beat it through mis-spelling words or using numbers in place of letters, eg, V14GRA, so you'll have to block out other combinations too.
DON'T block emails you want!
Blocking spam's by no means an exact science, and thus important emails may also be blocked. For example, the term "mortgage" is commonly filtered out as spam, so you could miss an important note from your broker while applying.
The way around this is to make sure you've added senders whose emails you'd like to receive to your "accepted list". The same goes for this site's weekly MoneySaving email; its combination of freebies, money, mortgage and debt info means it can easily get caught in spam filters.
For those that don't get it, you can add yourself to the distribution list at moneysavingexpert.com/tips.
We've all had moments of horror (even in this very office) where due to hardware failure, power cuts or just plain ol' silly mistakes, precious documents disappear. As more and more of our lives are committed to the digital domain, backing up data is becoming more and more important. Since there are ways to do it free, you'll only have yourself to blame if you don't.
If your PC broke, what files would you miss most? These are the ones you should be backing up as a minimum.
If you'd rather keep more tangible copies of your files, the options are either storing them on CDs and DVDs (you'll need a CD/DVD writer), or on an external USB hard drive for bigger/more files. As technology marches on, the latter are getting increasingly cheap; 1TB (1,000GB) for around £60 is now the norm if you buy online.
Use online storage
Online storage, or "cloud" storage services as they're also known, use a virtual hard drive that's installed on your desktop and linked directly to your online space.
There are a whole load of online storage services available, with many offering a few GB of free space. See Free Online Storage for a full list.
If you've already lost valuable files, there may still be some hope in the form of recovery programs. Freeware programs Restoration and PC Inspector work to recover lost files, but as you may expect, it's a bit of a lottery as to whether they actually succeed.