Protect Your PC For Free! No More Excuses!

With the resurgence of several email viruses and the proliferation of new ones, not to mention a host of new security vulnerabilities across several platforms, I thought I would take a step back and address protecting your system as a whole. I’ve discussed these individual portions separately in the past, but I thought it might be helpful to lump them together for quick and easy reference.

First and foremost, EVERY system needs an antivirus scanner, regardless of whether it’s running Windows, Linux, Mac, or some other esoteric operating system. While Mac and Linux platforms may be immune to infection by 99% of the viruses out there, there is still the possibility of spreading the virus to other users. For example, several Trojan Horses are spreading via P2P (peer-to-peer) networks and are disguised as popular music or video files. A Mac user may download one and never realize it’s there. Meanwhile their favorite P2P program (Kazaa, LimeWire, etc.) is sharing it out to users who are vulnerable.

I personally recommend Norton AntiVirus over McAfee, which comes with several PCs. Trend Micro also makes a home-use program called PC-cillin. Be prepared to spend about $30-35 for software and $4/year on virus subscriptions in all cases. However, as the title of this article suggests, there are free alternatives out there!

The first is Trend Micro’s HouseCall, an online scanner. I often use this one for troubleshooting and emergency scanning, and I don’t recommend it for permanent use as realtime scanning of your system will be impossible. If you feel you have a problem your current AV system (or lack of AV system) is not detecting, surf to and start a scan. A solid, free program for full-time home use is AVG, made by Grisoft. I’ve switched to AVG on my Windows 98 machine at home and have been very happy with it. It performs scheduled scans and you can update it as often as you like for free. You will have to register a legitimate email address to receive an unlock code, but I have had no problems with spam, etc., from Grisoft. AVG performs realtime and boot scanning as well as inbound and outbound email scanning. There is a pay version which is relatively inexpensive if you would like the extra doodads and some finer control, but most of them are unnecessary. Running Linux or Mac OS X? Check out RAV AntiVirus. They offer several free downloads for a number of platforms. While I have not tested their software directly, their reputation is solid.

Another component to system protection is the firewall. In simplest terms, a firewall protects your computer from unauthorized traffic, both inbound and outbound. Generally speaking, your computer should not be listening for requests. However, Trojan Horse programs, unauthorized spyware, and non-firewalled Windows File and Print Sharing can be announcing any number of things to the outside world, which means you can be giving away personal information or relinquishing control of your system without even knowing it! Mac OS X, Windows 2000 and XP, and Linux all have built-in firewall capabilities and I strongly recommend you learn to use them, especially if you have a broadband connection. They are not hard to configure. If you are using a broadband gateway or router to share your broadband connection to multiple PC’s, you should have a firewall built into the unit. Some cable and DSL modems come with built-in firewalls as well. See your manufacturer’s website or documentation for more information. An even easier method is to use a software firewall. ZoneAlarm from Zone Labs is a great option for Windows users. Not only does it provide good protection but it works on a program-by-program basis rather than having to deal with ports and protocols. When you first run Internet Explorer or your browser of choice, ZoneAlarm asks for permission which you can grant on a permanent or temporary basis. The beauty here is when a Trojan Horse runs on your system, ZoneAlarm will catch it, tell you what’s running, and you can deny traffic until you can figure out what’s happening. It also alerts you to altered programs, so if a virus infects an executable to piggyback on its traffic, you’ll know about it.

Like AVG, ZoneAlarm comes in several flavors of paid versions, but again, it’s all extra bells and whistles you may never need or use. The free version has been more than adequate for my home modem connection. You can also test its reliability (as well as that of any firewall) by running Steve Gibson’s ShieldsUP!.

Finally, we come to Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express. While Outlook and its variants are solid email clients with a lot of excellent features, let’s face it: it has a very poor reputation that has led to several viruses being tagged “OTD’s,” or “Outlook-Transmitted Diseases,” by the security community. It’s intended as tongue-in-cheek humor, but unfortunately there’s truth behind it. Unless you are consistently updating Outlook alongside Windows, chances are you’re going to fall behind on patches and become vulnerable.

Fortunately there are several free mail clients out there. If you’re running Mozilla, Opera, or Netscape as your browser of choice, you’ve already got email capability built in. Jump in and tinker, you may be surprised at what it can do. My personal favorite email client is Eudora, and I wish like hell they’d port it to Linux. Windows and Mac users can download it for free at Simple, powerful, and elegant. Great stuff.

With all this information available, there really is no excuse for becoming infected or spreading viruses other than plain user ignorance. My school’s network receives several per week, and I am constantly emailing people to teach them how to prevent the spread of viruses. While no software will ever become 100% resistant to viruses, proper use and maintenance and user education can go a long way to stopping the spread of these malicious viruses.