Viruses, worms, trojans, spyware, adware ... theyíre all out there trying to get on your machine and wreak havoc. In the past, a PC was at greatest risk from using virus-infected floppy disks passed from person to person. Today, floppy disks are used less and less, and being connected to the Internet poses the single greatest risk of picking up a virus - particularly if you are connected via broadband.
But letís keep things in proportion! Although there is a lot of malevolent software out there, it is relatively easy to keep your system protected from it. You need three basic things - anti-virus software, a firewall and anti-spyware software.
Anti-virus software is necessary to prevent worms, trojans and other types of viruses getting onto your system through e-mail or other mechanisms, and is available from a number of vendors. PC Medic recommends Norton Anti-Virus 2006 from Symantec for PCs with a minimum of 512MB of memory and at least a 2GHz processor. Unfortunately, we cannot recommend this product for PCs with lower specifications than this as we find recent versions to be too demanding of system resources and can lead to significant degradation of system performance i.e. it slows your PC down. Like most other anti-virus software, Norton Anti-Virus 2005 includes a 12-month subscription to new virus definitions in the cost of the product. After 12 months, you must renew your subscription to ensure that your system remains protected. A common mistake that many people make is to buy an anti-virus program, stick it on their PC and then forget about it. While relatively straightforward to use, all anti-virus software must be properly configured and kept up to date for it to offer adequate protection.
If your PC doesnít meet the specs outlined above, we recommend EZAntivirus from eTrust (part of Computer Associates). Or, if your budget is tight, you could try AVG Free Edition from Grisoft. Both of these products have been tested by PC Medic and found to offer good protection at a lower cost than Symantec products. Learn more about computer viruses here.
A firewall is either a hardware device or software program that limits the traffic into and out of your PC. This is important because when you are connected to the internet your PC is, in theory at least, visible and open to anyone who has the tools and know-how to access it. With dial-up connections, this is not such a problem, as these connections are transient in nature, and a hacker (or cracker to be more precise) would have to be extremely lucky to pick on your machine during the short time you are connected to the internet. With always-on broadband connections, the risks are greater, and crackers can use automated tools to constantly scan the internet for connected machines. If you have a broadband connection, sooner or later your PC will receive a port scan that probes your system for openings that the cracker can exploit. A firewall effectively makes your PC invisible to such scans from the internet, thereby protecting it from attacks.
If you have a network router, this may have a hardware firewall built into it. (Netopia wireless routers supplied by Eircom have a hardware firewall, whereas Zyxel routers supplied by Esat BT do not). Routers must be properly configured to afford proper protection. If you do not have a hardware firewall, and your operating system does not have a built in firewall, then you should consider Symantecís Personal Firewall 2006 software, Zone Alarm from ZoneLabs or Sygate Personal Firewall from Sygate. And remember, if you are running Windows XP on your PC you already have a software firewall built in to the operating system, but you must ensure that it is turned on. The Windows XP firewall will give basic protection but does not offer as many features as a dedicated software or hardware firewall. For example, it does not monitor outgoing traffic to prevent unauthorized transmission of your personal information, such as credit card numbers.
Anti-virus software and firewalls are largely ineffective against spyware and, as spyware infections now outnumber virus infections, it is increasingly important to ensure that you have effective anti-spyware software installed on your machine. One thing to be aware of is that there is more rogue anti-spyware software out there than legitimate software (see this link for details). Never buy such software from unsolicited pop-ups that appear on your screen or you may get more than you bargained for.
PC Medic regularly reviews the effectiveness of the available legitimate anti-spyware packages that are out there and the one that impresses us most, at the moment, is CounterSpy from Sunbelt Software. We find it easy to install, it is regularly updated and is effective against all of the common spyware variants that you are likely to encounter. CounterSpy is based on the same anti-spyware engine as Microsoftís Antispyware program. However, you should be aware that no single anti-spyware package is effective against all known spyware. For this reason we recommend that you use a blended defense measure by combining CounterSpy with one or more of the free anti-spyware programs that are available. The free programs that we recommend are Microsoft AntiSpyware (currently a beta version), Spybot Search & Destroy and Ad-Aware.
There are combined security suites available from a number of companies that include anti-virus, firewall, anti-spyware and anti-spam software in a single integrated package. Examples of these are Norton Internet Security 2006 and McAfee Internet Security Suite. While these can offer a single solution to your internet security needs be careful to review the system requirements before you buy as these integrated products can sometimes make heavy demands on your system resources. Check if a refund is available - both Norton and McAfee offer 60 and 30 day refund periods if their products donít work to your expectations.
PC Medic can, if necessary, supply, install and correctly configure anti-virus, firewall, and anti-spyware software on your system, or you can purchase it directly from the links above for self-install. If you already have these installed, we can check that they are correctly configured and providing you with the necessary protection.