Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Protecting Your Computer At NO COST!

The following post is neither endorsed by nor am I compensated by the companies mentioned herein. Furthermore, any instructions given are for Windows operating systems only. I have no experience with anything else. I apologize in advance.

Greetings, my fellow Internetters. I know it has been far too long since I've posted but offline life (and its effects on me) have given me little to write about. Either that or far too many "woe is me" and "time to go off on a profanity-laced rant" posts.

I decided to write this one after helping someone for many hours. Their computer was inundated with malware (short for malicious software), viruses, trojans, worms, name it...and she was both afraid for her computer's safety and fed up. I absolutely love helping and even educating people so I took the time to stop all I was doing and devote all my time to her. Now I'm going to do the same for you.

Before I begin, because I don't know who is familiar with which terms as far as computing, infections and the Internet goes, I'll define each of the above terms and some additional ones. Some of these definitions may include terms and/or phrases that you may not be familiar with. If this is the case, simply go to Wikipedia and type that term or phrase into their search bar at the top of the page. I suggest this only because I don't want this post to go into so much technical detail that it loses readers' interest or scope of knowledge

  • Virus - a computer program that can copy itself. It can spread from one computer to another (in some form of executable code) when its host is taken to the target computer; for instance because a user sent it over a network or the Internet, or carried it on a removable medium such as a floppy disk, CD, DVD, or USB drive. Viruses can increase their chances of spreading to other computers by infecting files on a network file system or a file system that is accessed by another computer.
  • Trojan (Horse) - A Trojan, sometimes referred to as a Trojan horse, is non-self-replicating malware that appears to perform a desirable function for the user but instead facilitates unauthorized access to the user's computer system. The term is derived from the Trojan Horse story in Greek mythology.
  • Worm - A self-replicating malware computer program. It uses a computer network to send copies of itself to other computers on the network and it may do so without any user intervention. This is due to security shortcomings on the target computer. Unlike a virus, it does not need to attach itself to an existing program. Worms almost always cause at least some harm to the network, if only by consuming bandwidth, whereas viruses almost always corrupt or modify files on a targeted computer.
  • Rootkit - A type of software that is designed to gain administrator-level control over a computer system without being detected. In virtually all cases, the purpose and motive is to perform malicious operations on a target host computing system at a later date without the knowledge of the administrators or users of that system. Rootkits can be installed in hardware or software targeting the BIOS, hypervisor, boot loader, kernel or less commonly, libraries or applications. The term rootkit is a concatenation of the administrative (superuser or "root") account in historical operating system terminology (primarily Unix) and the word "kit", which refers to the software components that implement the tool.
  • Spyware - A type of malware that is installed on computers and collects little bits of information at a time about users without their knowledge. The presence of spyware is typically hidden from the user, and can be difficult to detect.
  • Adware - Any software package which automatically plays, displays, or downloads advertisements to a computer after the software is installed on it or while the application is being used. Some types of adware are also spyware.
  • Scareware - Comprised of several classes of scam software with malicious payloads, or of limited or no benefit, that are sold to consumers via certain unethical marketing practices. The selling approach uses social engineering to cause shock, anxiety, or the perception of a threat, generally directed at an unsuspecting user. Some forms of spyware and adware also use scareware tactics. A tactic frequently used by criminals involves convincing users that a virus has infected their computer, then suggesting that they download (and pay for) fake antivirus software to remove it. Usually the virus is entirely fictional and the software is non-functional or is malware itself.
Long story short? All bad news. The news worsens when you realize what you may pay (or be paying) a year for supposed continuous, round-the-clock protection. Many companies charge for anti-virus software and can range from a one-time fee to a monthly or yearly subscription. The costs can add up. Below, I'll mention some of them and why I don't use them.

Half-hearted attempt at legalese: Let me make clear that the statements I'm about to make are from my own experiences and those I've witnessed, personally, of others. They also include my own opinions. They are not meant to be malicious or to deprive any reputable companies of customers and/or the earnings those customers may bring. By continuing, the reader assumes full responsibility for their actions henceforth. Furthermore, the reader acknowledges that the following techniques and solutions are not necessarily the only solutions available to achieve the same results.

If you've been using the internet for more than a year, you've likely come across some less-than-desirable folks in your time. You may have also come across some wonderful people. Perhaps some of those people are true friends which I firmly believe can be achieved online (I consider myself just as genuine and loyal online as offline). Alternatively to that, maybe you thought someone was a good person and now you're riddled with all the problems this post will talk about. It does not, however, take a bad one-on-one individual to become infected. Seemingly innocent web sites and well-intended email and file-forwards are usually the culprit.

I started using the internet in 1997. I built my first web site in August of that year. That information has no bearing whatsoever on this article so I'm not sure why I brought it up, but suffice it to say, I've been around for a while on this information superhighway. I have always been the type that asks questions when I want to learn something. Sometimes way too many for some people, but asked nonetheless. I also tend to hang in forums/messageboard "communities" that usually have thousands of members from all over the world. This can be very beneficial when trying to get a general and very versatile consensus of what to do and not do...try and not try. In my immediate family, I'm looked upon as somewhat of an internet genius. Some of them knowing little to none about the internet means this says very little, but some know their way around fairly well. Let's leave it at "I do more and learn more than any of them do because I seek the answers out."

For the longest time, I used no anti-virus software at all and rarely had a problem. That was the very early days of the internet though. More people and more countries get hooked in everyday and computer technology is growing by leaps and bounds by the month. Heck, I still remember when I got a new hard drive from a friend that was ONE HUNDRED MEGABYTES!!! I was on top of the world. My, how times have changed. Anyway, I have changed as well. I have paid for anti-virus software, I have paid monthly and yearly subscription rates to stay protected and have had "okay" to "good" results.

Here's where you'll see the reason for the "legalese" above. McAfee and Norton are little more than big brand names. Almost every computer I've ever helped clean up has had one of these two programs running. Running all the time no less. After completely uninstalling either of them from people's computers and then installing the programs I'm recommending, running thorough, complete system scans, with BOTH programs (McAfee and Norton) having supposedly run around-the-clock protection, I have found no less than 12 viruses, trojans and the like. I was in awe at just how much these two programs miss. They're big brand names and apparently do something right to have garnered the names they've made for themselves, but what that is totally escapes me. That being said, let's move on.

First step: Uninstall McAfee and/or Norton anti-virus

The first serious step I took in anti-virus software was Spy Sweeper from Webroot. If you're more comfortable with paying for virus protection rather than trusting free software, I strongly recommend giving that web site a serious look. They've won multiple awards and have many software solutions for home and business use. I used them for many years with great success. My time with them came to an end when Spy Sweeper found a trojan but could not remove it. After multiple software updates (included in their monthly or yearly fee) that trojan remained. Unfortunately, I can't even remotely remember the name of that trojan now, but it wasn't one of the "infamous" ones. I asked around at what all was available that worked and people swore by...but that didn't break the bank. Much to my surprise, all the ones mentioned had free versions! Better yet, those free versions met my needs. They are what I use today.

The program that not only found but eliminated the trojan I mentioned above was Malware Bytes. They have a free version and a full version as well as corporate licensing available. Their own web site says "Proven to thoroughly detect and remove even the most advanced malware."

Note: Malware Bytes is a run-to-scan program. What this means is it doesn't run all the time, giving round-the-clock protection. It is designed to be launched and a scan of your system started at that time. For round-the-clock protection, continue reading below.

For protection that is on constant lookout, I use (and recommend) AVG. Its free version has tons of protection and, for a fee, can add even more. With the free version you get anti-virus, anti-spyware, LinkScanner (blocks dangerous web sites and checks links on the most popular search engines for threats), E-mail Scanner (scans incoming and outgoing email from programs such as Outlook Express and Windows Mail for viruses) and Resident Shield (Works in the background scanning all of the files you use). It has options for identity protection and more complex protection for a fee.

These two programs have done me proud for quite a while now. Being that AVG runs all the time, I generally run my scans through Malware Bytes. Both of these programs search through the most commonly-infected areas of your computer first, and depending on how you set up your options, scan all running processes, the registry, etc. You can choose one folder, a quick scan of the most common areas, or a comprehensive and very thorough scan of your entire computer.

I have yet to have a single problem using these two programs. That being said, if someone tried hard enough, they may well be able to adversely effect my computer, but it would likely be more trouble than it's worth to them.

Lastly, a program I use that comes with Windows, is Windows Firewall. Turning Windows Firewall on basically warns you when a site or other entity is trying to do something to or through your computer. Think of it as the last line of defense...or perhaps the first. To turn Windows Firewall on, if it isn't already, simply do the following:

  • Windows XP - Start>Settings>Control Panel>Windows Firewall>Click the On (recommended) choice and then hit the OK button.
  • Windows Vista - Depending on whether you have Control Panel Home as your option or Classic View selected, which you'll know when you hit the start button (button with the Windows logo on it in the lower left of your screen): Control Panel Home Option Selected: Start>Control Panel>Security (click on the word Security itself)>Turn Windows Firewall On or Off>Click the OK button Classic View Option Selected: Start>Control Panel>Windows Firewall>Change Settings (or you can click in the left panel where it says Turn Windows Firewall On or Off>Click On (recommended) option>Click the Apply button>Click the OK button
  • My apologies for not including instructions for Windows 7 or pre-Windows XP versions. I'm simply not familiar with them
With Windows Firewall, you can choose to allow certain programs through. These are called Exceptions:

Windows XP:
Start>Settings>Control Panel>Windows Firewall>Exceptions tab>find and click the program (or click on the Add Program if the program you're wanting to let through is not on the list given)>Click the OK button

Windows Vista: (2 Ways)

1) Start>Control Panel>Security (or Windows Firewall, depending on which view you have selected)>Click on Change Settings and then go to the Exceptions tab, find the program on the list (or click the Add program button if the program you're wanting to let through the firewall is not found on the list given), Click the Apply button and then click the OK button
2) Start>Control Panel>Security (or Windows Firewall, depending on which view you have selected)>Click on Allow a program through Windows Firewall, which will open the Exceptions tab, find the program on the list (or click the the Add program button if the program you're wanting to let through the firewall is not found on the list given), Click the Apply button and then click the OK button

Now, for those of you not terribly familiar with how to do all I've mentioned above or are now billowing smoke from your ears from the technical information overload, you may wish to stop here to avoid confusion (or possible further confusion). I'm going to be mentioning alternative methods and software that I have heard good things about but neither use nor have any opinions about. I am listing them only in the interest of some alternative choices and options that many seem to swear by. I can't speak for how well they work or are upgradable to.

Again, this is not going to be a comprehensive or detailed list. They are simply options I have heard good things least the last time I heard about them: (These programs may or may not require more intimate technical knowledge)

  • Spybot Search & Destroy - Free but donations appreciated. Their team works hard to be very, very competitive and comprehensive and they do so very well. You can read about and download it here.
  • Ad-Aware - I've heard very good things about this one as well. They have version for home and office and many more bells and whistles. Well worth a look if you want to do more research into alternative options to what this article has been about. You can read about it and download it from here.
  • ZoneAlarm - Another I've heard many good things about. They have a free firewall alternative to Windows Firewall and just about every other computer security feature out there in similar and competitive software today. Again, well worth a look.

Now we'll delve into other ways of protecting and/or cleaning up your computer but not in quite so much detail. My primary reason for posting this article was to inform everyone about the ease of use and free software that I use myself (Malware Bytes and AVG Free).

If you download a lot, delete a lot, install a lot and uninstall a lot, consider defragmenting your computer's hard drive(s). If you do the things listed above very often, do it at least once every 1-3 months. To do this: Windows XP: Start>All Programs>Accessories>System Tools>Disk Defragmenter>click on your hard drive's letter(s) - default is (C:), then (D:), etc)>click the Analyze button if you wish to see how much of a difference defragmenting will make or just click on Defragment Windows Vista: Start>Control Panel>System>Performance>Advanced Tools>Open Disk Defragmenter>Defragment Now. If you have more than one hard drive on your Windows Vista machine, click on Select Volumes>choose the drive(s) you wish to defragment, click OK. or, if you only have one hard drive, click on Defragment Now, (Windows 7 and anything pre-Windows XP: I am not familiar with any other versions of Windows. My apologies).

Another adverse effect of downloading, deleting, installing and uninstalling a lot is cluttering up your registry. For this, I suggest getting a program called CCleaner. You can read about and download it here. It cleans up and optimizes your registry which is pretty darn important to your computer's efficiency. I've both heard many good things about this program and use it myself.

As per usual, I've written quite a lengthy and involved blog post. For this I both apologize and, at the same time, don't apologize. I try to give as much detail and help as much as I can. If ya haven't figured out that my blog isn't geared for the 15-minute-break reading time by now, ya just ain't gonna. Bottom line? Uninstall McAfee and/or Norton Anti-virus completely. Download and install Malware Bytes and AVG Free.

Until next time, my friends...

I have implemented a new commenting system. Sadly, in doing so, I inadvertently lost all comments made prior to December 28, 2011. My deepest apologies to those this adversely affected. If it's any consolation, it makes my blog here look pretty darn unvisited over the years.
If this article is still online, I'll still reply to any and all comments that warrant it. Never feel like an article you view here is too old to bother with. Comments are always welcomed!
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Anonymous said...

First off, I like the write up.

Have you ever used Avast! Antivirus? (also free to home users)

I've found it to have less of a footprint in memory usage and relatively equal protection as AVG, although I've heard about, but not experienced, some update problems with it.

Any opinions?

CliffyTX said...

First off, thanks for the compliment. To answer your question, no...I haven't used it and admit to knowing very little about it. I have heard of it but didn't know enough about Avast to give a fair opinion either way on it.

Thanks again for the kind words and for writing!

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