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Despite some advertising claims to the contrary, ALL computers are susceptible to viruses or other cyber-attacks.
Computer viruses are programs written to alter the way your computer operates without your permission or knowledge. Most viruses can replicate themselves and spread to other files or even other computers. Worms are programs that use computer networks to take advantage of security flaws and replicate themselves to other systems.
Spyware is a type of program that watches what you do on your computer and sends that information to a third party over the Internet. Some spyware tracks what websites you visit and sends the information to an advertiser. Others try to record what you type in an attempt to capture passwords or credit card numbers. Still others simply launch pop-up advertisements constantly.
Anyone who spends time on the Internet should have some basic safety measures in place to combat common Internet dangers. Below, we describe the four major software solutions:
There are all-inclusive software suites available from major developers such as Symantec and McAfee. These suites provide more complete protection and can cost up to $100 or more. Below, we provide links to low- or no-cost alternatives which should provide basic, minimum protection for most users. If you feel you are at greater risk for any reason, you should consider purchasing a more comprehensive software solution.
A good anti-virus application is a must. This cannot be stressed enough. If you download files of any type from the Internet or receive emails with attachments, an anti-virus program can catch most viruses before any damage can be done. Furthermore, an anti-virus program can be set to scan your entire system at regular intervals for viruses you may have inadvertently downloaded.
Furthermore, since new viruses and worms are constantly being developed and released, a good anti-virus must be regularly updated to recognize and combat these new threats. Most anti-virus applications regularly "phone home" (automatically contact the developer's website) to request virus updates. The best developers provide these updates at weekly (or better) intervals.
AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition and Microsoft Security Essentials are two anti-virus applications you can download and install from their respective websites. (Note: running more than one anti-virus on a computer at a time is neither recommended nor effective. Choose one that is best for your needs.) They are free for non-commercial, home use and can provide solid anti-virus protection at no cost.
Anti-spyware applications can be set to scan your entire computer for spyware at regular intervals. They can also "innoculate" certain parts of your system against future attacks. Like anti-virus software, these applications are regularly updated with definitions for new spyware.
It is commonly held that no one anti-spyware application does the job 100% perfectly. However, two or more applications can complement each other to provide whole-system protection.
Spybot - Search & Destroy and Lavasoft's Ad-Aware SE Personal are two such applications. They are free for non-commercial, home use and are regularly updated.
A software firewall controls traffic in and out of your computer. Only programs with permission to do so may access your network or the Internet. This is especially useful in combating spyware, which will often try to send its information back to a third party without your knowledge. Simply denying unrecognized programs access to the Internet can go a long way in protecting your personal information. Furthermore, a firewall can be used to forbid access to the Internet by regular programs such as instant-messengers or to lock your computer out of the Internet entirely.
The latest versions of Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X include a software firewall which provides a minimum of protection from common attacks and spyware. OnGuard Online has video tutorials on how to enable and configure them.
There are also third-party software firewalls available for all major operating systems.
Parental Control software can be considered a beefed-up version of a software firewall. Not only can certain programs be policed, but entire websites can be forbidden, content can be strictly monitored and Internet activity can be logged.
FreeShield and Bsafe are two Parental Control and filtering applications. FreeShield is free and Bsafe is $49.95 for a year subscription. We recommend that you review these sites and decide what your needs are before you make a decision.