At one time an antivirus program was sufficient to protect your computer from the annoying (and often destructive) "bugs" that attacked your computer.
Today, viruses are blended with multi-faceted and simultaneous threats, making them much more dangerous and resulting in serious implications for your personal privacy as well as for your finances if you aren't fully protected.
You Need a Security Suite
Your computer must be protected by a current security suite that includes antivirus, anti-spyware, keylogger / screengrabber protection plus an effective advanced two-way firewall.
- Without a suit of products that work together, you cannot have complete security from infections and attacks on your computer. The 11 most common computer security threats each indicate a danger level and prevalence ranking that helps you to evaluate the risk, but you need to protect yourself from all of them simultaneously.
- Infections can make your computer unworkable and it is often difficult (or impossible) to repair the damage caused. You need to ensure you have a current backup
- Malware can go unnoticed yet risks your privacy and uses resources you've paid for to benefit someone else. Botnets are big business.
Ensure your protection is always current. You have no excuse for not running security software. Many vendors offer free versions of their security software for personal use (although they may not perform as well as you expect).
What About the Mac?
The Mac has a reputation for being safe without an antivirus, but perhaps it is time to change that opinion. Choose an effective program that doesn't significantly slow down the system. Malware protection is particularly weak and we now have proof that Macs can get ransomware. More about Mac security…
Using Windows XP Risky
Windows XP is at significantly higher risk for infection than a Windows 7 computer, exasperated by the continued use of the obsolete Outlook Express and older versions of Internet Explorer.
…XP PCs should not be used to constantly surf the Web or serve as an e-mail platform. Most of the malware finds its way into a Windows system via these pathways.
Here's another unanimous recommendation by the security vendors surveyed: Whenever there is an opportunity, the user ought to switch over to more recent Windows versions such as 7 or 8. — AV-TEST
In an October 2014 report, ComputerWorldUK noted:
Fifty-two percent of the [half-million] compromised computers were running Windows XP,a figure that is at once unsurprising -- considering that support for Windows XP, including patches, ended in April 2014,according to the report.
Most of those computers were running Internet Explorer,which is to be expected given both the size of the Internet Explorer install base and the number and variety of exploits available for this browser,the report said.
Antivirus & Security Software
While you can purchase anti-virus & security packages in retail stores, these sites offer software at reduced rates, 24-hour access, instant updates, and on-line technical support.
Save Backups of Installation Software & Licenses
If you do purchase your software on-line, be sure to save a copy of the installation file(s) — preferably on removable media — so you can reinstall it if you need to repair it or suffer a catastrophic loss of your operating system.
Not All Products As Effective
AV-Comparatives.org tests (see graphic) show significant variations in preventing infections:
- green were automatically blocked;
- yellow were user dependent; and
- red were compromised.
The line near the top shows protection provided by Windows 7 “out of the box” (not good enough).
Recommended Security Solutions
ZoneAlarm Extreme Security
I strongly recommend ZoneAlarm Extreme Security for complete security protection (Internet Security Suite is not as effective in fighting todays blended threats).
- Kaspersky Antivirus is very highly rated, but I prefer the version licensed with ZoneAlarm for more complete protection.
- Panda Cloud Antivirus paid Pro version includes a community firewall, protection on pubic WiFi networks and VIP support.
Mac and Linux
The Mac and Linux have traditionally been safer than Windows for security, but this is no longer true.
- Mac users, see Security Software on my Mac resources page.
- Linux users, see Security Software on my Linux resources page.
Free Antivirus Solutions
I strongly recommend sticking with a paid subscription because it will offer more frequent updates, better security and your requests for help will always get priority over similar free products.
But if you can't afford it, there are basic (and sometimes excellent) free protection for home users.
ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall
ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall is my recommended free solution. It provides both an antivirus and two-way firewall in a single package.
Do not install ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall with any other antivirus or security products as they can conflict, leaving you vulnerable.
These solutions are recommended ONLY if combined with the ZoneAlarm Free Firewall (basic firewall only):
- ClamWin Free Antivirus comes with an easy installer and open source code. However, there is no real-time scanner (you need to manually scan files for viruses) and no firewall.
- AVG Free Personal Edition provides excellent basic protection for home users with light requirements (not suitable for online banking or shopping).
- Panda Cloud Antivirus has a very minimal footprint (free for home users and non-profit organizations) but is missing most of the features of the paid product, including .
I don't recommend the following products.
Microsoft Security Essentials (a beefed-up Windows Defender) is free for individuals and small businesses with up to 10 PCs.
Zero-day detection was mediocre, but the popular free antivirus program performed well at spotting malware…the product performs worse when compared with other free or paid offerings. — AV-Test.org
Windows 8.1 comes with an enhanced version of Windows Defender, but the outgoing firewall is turned off by default. Turning it on can overwhelm the casual user with constant alerts.
- Windows Defender is included with Windows Vista and later but is an anti-spyware/anti-malware product, and does not include antivirus protection.
Other Antivirus Solutions
These may be excellent anti-virus solutions, but I have not tested them recently. Most require a great deal of your system resources (mainly RAM) to run and many disable ZoneAlarm, my recommended firewall. More about evaluating solutions.
- Norton Antivirus became known for the huge impact on the system resources and very long scan times — issues corrected in recent versions.
- Panda Antivirus.
- Sophos Antivirus.
- AntiVir Personal Edition Premium.
- avast! 4 Professional. Non-profit & government discounts are available.
Many ISPs (particularly those offering broadband services) now include anti-virus protection either included as a part of their regular services or for a fee. Some ISPs activate it automatically, but most require some action on your part. This can be an excellent first line of defense, backed up by an installed anti-virus program (since not all viruses are spread by email).
However, many of the packages provided by ISPs to install on your computer (such as Shaw Secure) are very intensive users of system resources and are not necessarily the best products available. Try my recommended solutions instead, particularly if you're a home user where some excellent free options are available to you.
Beware of Fake Spyware-removers
Watch out for “ads” on websites that appear to "find" spyware on your system. They install a fake program, then offer to remove it if you purchase their product. Don't fall for these tactics. They are rip-offs or fakes.
The best defense is to keep your protection current and to know how your security software displays warnings.
- Do NOT click links on websites running a simulated (but realistic-looking) “infection reports” on your computer. These can also appear on your desktop in a Windows dialogue box.
- Internet Explorer much more vulnerable in allowing malware to install unasked. Don't use IE for browsing the Web.
Most Email “Warnings” Are Illegitimate
You've received a message from a friend that suggests you forward it to everyone in your address book. What do you do?
Don't forward it. Delete the message!
It doesn't matter what the content is. Any request to forward information to everyone is highly suspect when it is sent to a group of people. Other's don't like junk mail any more than you do.
99.9% of these are hoaxes or some other form of malware. I suggest you stop and take a closer look at the message before taking any action. I'm appalled at how often people repeatedly forward these things without checking them out.
Hoaxes are Social "Viruses"
Hoaxes are social viruses that take advantage of our compassionate nature. Features like the following should trigger you to investigate further:
- Any request to forward the message to everyone in your address book is almost certainly a hoax.
- Hoaxes use emotional rather than factual approaches to lure you in (see an example).
- Hoaxes depend on our concern for our computers (such as "virus" warnings) or greed (chain letters that pay big dividends) or compassion for others (such as saving a sick child).
- Many cite "authority" sources, most of which never issue such warnings. If in doubt, check the authority's website for confirmation.
Avoid Spreading Ignorance
Begin with a simple Internet search for unique specifics in the message. This will give you information to test the legitimacy of any message.
- Do not forward email "warnings." Most are false.
- Check for accurate virus information from antivirus vendors.
Other Hoax Information Sites
You might also wish to check out:
- Snopes.com Rumour Has It has an extensive categorized listing of urban legends and rumours.
- HoaxBusters which maintains a site dedicated to the various on-line scams and hoaxes that don't necessarily relate to virus activities.
- Hoax-Slayer debunks email hoaxes and exposes Internet scams.
- The Identity Theft Resource Center has many useful resources.
- TruthOrFiction.com lists rumours, inspirational stories, virus warnings, humorous tales, pleas for help, urban legends, prayer requests and calls to action with details about their truth or fiction.
- Cyber-Museum of Scams and Frauds lists various financial schemes promoted by email and other means.
Fixing Issues with Antivirus Software
Multiple Security Products can Conflict
If you're having issues with your security software, verify that there are no competing security products installed on your system.
Competing antivirus, anti-spyware and firewall programs can conflict with each other, leaving you vulnerable to infection by viruses, malware and other threats.
- Microsoft's Windows Defender and Windows Firewall are generally either allowed or disabled by most security software.
- McAfee Security Scan Plus (installed with Adobe Flash as an optional download) is not recommended but shouldn't conflict.
While there are some generic similarities between security products (they provide the same function), you'll need to see help specific to the program(s) you're running.
I suggest that you seek help on the support website for your product then try the support forum if you have no luck. Try searching for your specific problem, using an error message or similar search criteria.
Generic searches on the Web can be helpful, but you'll need to ensure that the suggestions don't get you into more trouble or land you on a malicious site.
Evaluating Antivirus Solutions
Microsoft enables the Windows firewall by default and checks for the presence of a current antivirus solution and scans for malware with Windows Defender.
These provide a base-line protection but are insuffient on their own.
Use a Security Suite
A security suite that includes all the security protection is recommended rather than shopping for various components.
- Antivirus protection can no longer be considered a stand-alone issue.
- Verify the system requirements (optimally the recommended rather than minimum requirements) to ensure your computer can run the software, in particular, RAM (memory) and available disk space.
- Avoid creating your own suite: running multiple security programs can create a conflict that prevents detection rather than improving it.
Assessing Antivirus Solutions
Several websites and magazines evaluate antivirus and other security products. Be sure to include your specific needs into the evaluation process. Often one product will excel in one area but be weak elsewhere and these change as products evolve.
- Check AV Comparatives Summary Reports for independent tests of various antivirus software.
- See how various vendors did each year on AV Comparatives False Alarm Tests.
- Compare various alternatives.
The number of false positives (safe files tagged as viruses) should be few or none. Most antivirus programs look for certain traits that are common to virus activity to detect unknown threats. Unfortunately, this can tag legitimate program files — obviously creating issues for the person depending upon the A/V program.
Automatic Scans and Updates
Ensure that your security software will update automatically and provide for a scheduled scan to detect issues missed while running a realtime scanner (the one that checks files as they are opened).
Many people simply don't add protection and fail to ensure it is updated frequently (it is like not having health insurance or ignoring expired health insurance).
Updated: November 20, 2015