Top 10 Free Ways to Protect your PC

Written by Darren Hewer

Guy mad at his computerUpdated for 2010-2011: Download great free software to keep your computer safe!

How well would you cope if all of the data on your computer was suddenly inaccessible? Or what if your credit card numbers were stolen online?

Unfortunately these are ever-present dangers. But there is free software available that will allow you to safely protect your computer.

In the past, running anti-virus software was enough to keep you protected. But nowadays, there are at least three components you’ll need for proper PC security:

  • Anti-virus
  • Anti-spyware
  • Firewall

None of these programs will guarantee that your computer is safe, but here are 10 free software applications you can use to help protect your personal data from harm. (Note also that many of these programs are intended for personal/home use only.)

Operating System Updates

If you are using Windows (like about 90% of web users) you need to make sure your copy of Windows is kept up-to-date using Windows Update. This protects you against any vulnerabilities or bugs that have been discovered in the operating system. The best solution is to make sure automatic updates are on, but if you choose to update manually, Microsoft recommends that you check for new updates once a week.

Spyware

Probably the largest threat to your computer is spyware. Spyware can add annoyances to your web browsing like extra popups or redirecting you to inappropriate websites. Most dangerously, it can allow unscrupulous individuals to steal your personal information including credit card numbers or banking data.

Windows Defender
Windows Defender from Microsoft won’t interfere with other spyware apps, so it’s a good idea to have it running even though it is not the most effective anti-spyware tool available. If you have Vista, make sure it’s turned on by going to Start > All Programs > Windows Defender, then Tools > Options, and under Administrator options, select or clear the Use Windows Defender checkbox. If you have XP, you can download Windows Defender for free from Microsoft’s website.

Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware
Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware is described by CNet as a “surprisingly effective freeware antimalware tool.” Its free version is fast and generally very effective at identifying and removing spywar, trojans, and other troublesome software. (Note that realtime protection is only available in the paid version.)

Spybot Search & Destroy
Spybot S&D is lightweight and frequently updated. It scans your computer quickly compared to many other anti-spyware applications, and includes optional real-time (constant) protection. However its interface can be confusing so you’ll have to take a little time to learn how to use it.

Comprehensive guide on network security from Answers.com’s Networking Expert Chad Williamson.

Anti-virus

Viruses used to be the most common computer threat. Today viruses are less common than spyware, but it is still necessary to run anti-virus software to keep your computer protected. Most anti-virus software continually scans your computer as you work so that you will immediately be alerted to potential threats.

Avast! Anti-Virus
Avast! is oddly named but it doesn’t take up a lot of system resources and includes “anti-rootkit” protection. (Rootkits are programs hackers use to access systems.) Free registration on the Avast! website is required to obtain a license key to use this software.

Avira AntiVir
A third option for virus protection is Avira AntiVir, which requires no registration to download and use. It does not scan incoming or outgoing email, but it is usually fast when doing full-computer scans and runs constantly to keep you protected.

AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition
AVG was one of the first free anti-virus applications and is a reliable standard. Its newest version includes some new features and a new interface but has been criticized for slowing down your computer a bit more than previous releases, so it’s best for reasonably fast/recent computers.

Firewall

A firewall moderates the data that is allowed in and out of your computer. Hardware firewalls (such as a router) prevents data (except the types that you choose) from entering or leaving your computer. Software firewalls can also monitor which programs are sending and receiving data and allow you to prevent individual applications from doing so.

Windows Firewall
Windows Firewall is included with Windows XP SP2 and Vista. Since you likely already have it, you might as well use it, even though it is less effective than other free solutions. To make sure it’s running, in XP go to Start > Control Panel > Windows Firewall … in Vista, go to Start > Control Panel > Security > Windows Firewall.

Comodo Firewall Pro
Comodo Firewall Pro is the highest rated free firewall program as judged by an independent security organization.[1] It also includes some basic virus protection and spyware protection, but it should not be used as a replacement for those programs. Comodo is a good choice if you’re looking for a full featured free firewall solution.

Web Browser

The final software recommendation to keep you safe is using Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome as your web browser instead of Internet Explorer. Although IE9 presents many significant improvements over previous versions, Firefox and Chrome (or Opera, another free competitor) are web browsers which include built-in security features to try to keep you safe from “phishing” sites (fake sites that try to trick you into entering personal information) and are not vulnerable to certain types of attacks that Internet Explorer is.

Final advice

Of course the very best way to avoid spyware, viruses, and hacker attacks in the first place is to be cautious! Carefully choose which websites you visit, don’t click links in email or instant messages, and don’t install any software without researching it first. If you keep these guidelines in mind, you’ll be on the right track to keeping your personal computer and your data safe!

Related Readings:
Learn better email etiquette
Why do “good” people do bad things


Disclaimer: All programs listed above should be considered “caveat emptor”: Use them at your own risk. No software or program will be entirely free from error or work properly in every situation. We disclaim all warranties, expressed or implied, including, and without limitation to, the warranties of merchantability and of fitness for any purpose stated by any program or website mentioned or linked to. Furthermore, we will assume no liability for damages of ANY kind (direct or consequential) which may result from the use of any program or resource listed.

[1] Matousec Transperent Security, “Firewall Challenge: Results & Comments” n.p. Cited 22 July 2008. Online: http://www.matousec.com/projects/firewall-challenge/results.php

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6 Responses to “Top 10 Free Ways to Protect your PC”

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  • Brent says:

    Yeah. That’s probably true if done manually, but there are four free software programs at dyingsun.net and some free mini utilities at grc.com that harden parts of Windows, free HIPS software that prevents most new malware from installing or running, free encryption and encrypted form filling software and the free utility DropMyRights protects Windows a bit more when online in the default administrator account, which is needed by not only Windows XP users but also Windows Vista users who’ve chosen to disable the intrusive User Account Control (UAC).

    If we were to never get lax in our caution or make a mistake, or not have any private data on our hard drive, I suppose being cautious about those things would be enough.

    But if…
    1)those experts aren’t off base
    2)we get careless or mistakenly do one or more of the things you mentioned in your last paragraph, which can happen even to the most cautious among us (and all it takes is one rootkit being installed to bypass all our security software)
    3)we have sensitive, private data on our hard drive and…
    4)these solutions – hardening, prevention and restriction – can be provided by free software without the need for more than basic computer knowhow or time – and I think they can
    …it seems to me that all three should be added to and included in our basic security. Wouldn’t you agree?

    By the way, in case anyone’s interested, experts are recommending not storing private data on Flash storage media, since it can’t all be secured or permanently erased. That’s another free solution that doesn’t take a more than basic computer knowhow.

    And for those bold enough to try it, Ian “Gizmo” Richards and other experts recommend using the free VMware Player / Linux (Ubuntu)-based Browser Appliance combo, what they consider to be the best way to keep Windows and your private data safe when online. There. I’m done. I’ll get off my soapbox now. :P Safe surfing everyone!

  • Hi Brent, thanks for your comments! Definitely this list is not meant to be a comprehensive solution to protect a person’s PC, so the options you list are certainly valuable. (This list was meant to be a list of free software that can help a person stay safe.)

    In particular, making sure your OS is up-to-date with the latest patches is critically important, so I highly recommend that. Unfortunately for most casual/home users, some of the security options you mention may be beyond their scope (in terms of technical knowhow and time/resources issues) so while they are effective they may not be practical for all users.

    The most important thing, IMHO, is mentioned in the last paragraph in the article: Be cautious what websites you visit, buttons you click on, and software that you install!

  • Brent says:

    In reading and collecting online articles for my free 9-step computer security guide a few years ago, I learned that experts no longer believe those 3 software programs are enough to sufficiently protect our systems and data.

    Why the 3 “basic security software” don’t provide basic security, according to them:

    Zero Day/Zero Hour, Malicious Web Page Code and Other Threats (solution: use a Host Intrusion Detection or Prevention System, sandbox or virtualization software)
    An Unsecure Default Operating System Configuration (solution: harden the operating system; in other words, reconfigure, the default system settings for sufficient security)
    Windows’ Executable Script Files (solution: disable Windows File Protection (WFP), delete dangerous executables from system32 and cache folders, then re-enable WFP…or switch to Mac OS or Linux)
    Buffer Overflow (solution: use an NX bit-supporting CPU)
    Static IP Address When Using Broadband (solution: use a router with a built-in firewall, in addition to a two-way software firewall)

    It seems to me they see a vital need to include the above solutions in our basic security. What do you think? That they’re exaggerating, off base or paranoid? Or not?

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