Apr 28 2015

Virus and Malware Prevention 101

I know this is a bit of a slow-ball compared to my usual discussion topics of more advanced things, but it’s something that should be at the back of everyone’s mind who uses a windows computer. The first version of this was a response to a question I was asked at work from someone who was being prompted to purchase a subscription to McAfee antivirus on her new laptop and wanted to know if she needed antivirus software (because the use case only required internet access to transmit data that was created on it back to the office), and whether she should purchase the antivirus her computer was prompting her to buy.

My response to her is as follows:


The best answer I have for you is No and Yes.  No, you don’t need to purchase or install a for-pay antivirus system, but is it something you need, Yes. My best recommendation would be a use a good, well-known, free antivirus system. The ones I have the most experience with, and use myself, finding they work pretty well, are Microsoft Security Essentials (also known in windows 8 / 8.1 as windows defender) which does a decent job, but on my own personal computers, I’ve been running the free version of Avast antivirus, which I find typically finds more viruses and malware than windows defender does. Doing lots of consulting for friends, family, etc. I often work with lots of files from untrusted sources, especially in situations where I’m using my computer to clean up a virus infection on someone else’s computer and Avast has typically been a bit better at heuristic detection than the Microsoft solutions that I’ve seen.

At the end of the day, the moral of the story is that EVERYONE should be running some kind of good antivirus on their computers, there are BILLIONS of viruses in the wild now, with more sophisticated versions emerging on a daily basis, but you don’t need to pay for antivirus software to have reasonable protection.

Running a good antivirus is only the first step though, I also recommend regular (monthly or every other month) cleaning of caches using a tool such as CCleaner free, as well as scanning your computer with tools like MalwareBytes Anti-Malware (free), and Spybot Free Edition (free), because most malware that aren’t viruses, trojans, or key loggers, aren’t caught by antivirus applications but can easily be responsible for things like lots of popup advertising co-opting your web browsers or tracking your internet use and the like.

The number one tip I can give that will keep you relatively free of most of the viruses and malware on the internet however: DON’T DOWNLOAD APPLICATIONS FROM UNTRUSTED VENDORS. Though that fun little game, on-screen computer buddy, weather widget, or seemingly benign utility software may seem all good, that’s where you typically find the works of the internet’s seedy underbelly. Stick to software you’ve heard lots about that are big companies, publicized in the news or on trusted big-name blogs and such, and when in doubt, don’t be embarrassed to ask a friend or helpful co-worker. I’m here to help.

Further, even a few big-name software packages contain adware and other Potentially Unwanted Programs. When you install ANYTHING downloaded from the internet (even updates to software you’ve already got (I’m looking at you, Java)), be sure to read-through what the installer is telling you is going to be downloaded and installed and UNCHECK the things that you don’t want. This gets lots of people in trouble.

Hopefully I’ve been able to shed some light on some good “best practices” for basic computer security in an understandable way.

Have a great night!

P.S. Many computer vendors include trial versions of for-pay antivirus solutions that ask for money after some reasonably short period of time.  I always advise removing these as soon as possible as using Windows Defender / Security Essentials or Avast typically gives better results while using less resources, without the nagging for your hard-earned money.

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