Monday, November 28, 2005

Lesson IX - Free Anti-Virus Resources

Ever since its inception, the Internet has earned a reputation as a haven for freebies: free web browsers, free email, free music, free product samples, free mortgage quotes, free radioactive iodine blocker. . . . OK, so maybe some of the free items are more desirable than others. Among the most desirable freebies available on the Internet today are anti-virus resources designed to combat malicious code.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Source on Anti-Virus Resources

Many computer users today are betting the security of their data on no-cost anti-virus solutions, and who can blame them? Why pay an annual fee for a traditional anti-virus utility, such as Symantec’s Norton Anti-virus or Network Associates’ McAfee Virus-Scan, when you can get the same thing for free? Computers cost enough as it is, and many users just can’t afford or justify the extra expense.
Although we don’t advocate making decisions based solely on price (the old saying that you get what you pay for often proves uncomfortably true when the price you pay is nothing), we understand the motivation to save a buck can be awfully persuasive. If you’re going to be cheap, we may as well help you do it right. The truth is that you can create a fairly effective virus barrier around your computer system if you practice safe computing techniques and take advantage of some of the Internet’s free anti-virus resources.
Actually, the free anti-virus resources located on the web do more than fight viruses. They also combat worms (destructive programs designed to propagate across a network), Trojan horses (programs that claim to be one thing while actually doing something else), intrusive hackers (hackers who use their computing skills for malicious purposes), and any other insidious pests that pose a threat to your computer system.
Free anti-virus resources come in many forms. One, they come as virus directories, which provide explanations of and remedies for many of the most common types of malicious code. Two, you’ll find them appear as web-based virus-scanning services that scour your computer’s storage devices for the presence of infections. And three, you’ll even find them present themselves as full-blown anti-virus programs you can install on your PC for complete virus protection.
The best virus directories come from recognized anti-virus software developers, including McAfee, with its Virus Information Library; Sophos, with its Virus Analyses; Symantec, with its Search And Expanded Threats page10; and Trend Micro, with its Virus Encyclopedia. The big-name anti-virus software developers also provide some of the best web-based virus-scanning services. You’ll find a detailed listing of these services in the “Free Online Virus-Scanning Services” sidebar.
But virus directories and scanning services are just helper applications. They strengthen your anti-virus arsenal, but they do not anchor it. For that, you need an installed anti-virus utility that can identify and eliminate any trace of malicious code that invades—or even attempts to invade—your system. Several free products are available for this purpose.
These free products stack up favorably when compared to commercial anti-virus utilities you can buy. Both provide constant virus surveillance, searching for the presence of malicious code in the files stored on the hard drive, as well as in the email messages and attachments that come into and go out from your system. The programs also protect the integrity of your data files by routinely comparing the current condition of each file against an archived record of the file’s technical specifications, including its size and attributes. If the program sees that one of your system files has suddenly ballooned in size from 10KB (kilobytes) to 3MB (megabytes), for instance, it will generate a warning.
In terms of usability, AVG and “AVAST! Home” offer intuitive interfaces that make it easy for the average computer user to change settings, initiate on-demand virus scans, and update virus definitions (descriptions that help anti-virus software recognize the presence of malicious code). The developers release virus updates monthly, but incremental updates are also available on a weekly basis.
The primary difference between the products is that AVG automatically cleans the infected files it finds whereas “AVAST! Home” simply deletes or isolates the infected files. But this weakness of “AVAST! Home” is one you can work around as long as you are willing to clean the infected files on your own (you should be able to find detailed removal instructions if you look up the offending virus in one of the web’s many virus directories).
Another difference relates to program availability. AVG 6.0 is available for use on all home and office computers that run a supported OS (operating system), and any version of DOS or Windows will suffice. Alternately, use of “AVAST! Home” is limited to home users who don’t use their computers for generating a profit. These qualified users must provide a name, mailing address, and email address to ALWIL Software to download and use the program. The only significant system requirement for “AVAST! Home” is that your computer runs Windows 95 or a newer OS.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Short-Term Savings

Everybody loves a deal, and there’s no denying that AVG 6.0 and “AVAST! Home” represent as good a deal as you’re likely to get when it comes to virus protection. Nevertheless, you may want to think twice before loading either of the free products on your PC because they have some drawbacks.
The greatest drawback to these products is their limited technical support. Grisoft doesn’t provide any technical assistance to users of AVG 6.0, whereas ALWIL Software lets users of “AVAST! Home” submit their technical inquiries via email only. In either case, the burden is on you to figure out timely solutions to problems that arise while installing or configuring the utility. That may sound like a small price to pay for free software, but it can take a heavy toll when a virus strikes and the need for immediate assistance becomes crucial.
Another significant drawback is the monthly—rather than weekly or daily—virus definition updates. Home and small-business computer users, especially those who have dial-up Internet connections, may be satisfied with the frequency of these updates, but anyone who maintains a steady flow of incoming and outgoing files, email, and instant messages via a DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) or cable Internet connection won’t be content with limited tech support. The same is true for those who operate their computers on a network. Besides, 30 days is more than enough time for a virus to invade a system, wreak havoc, and transmit itself to dozens of other computers. Freeware just doesn’t cut it when the stakes are high.
Scrupulous computer users know this and have no problem shelling out $20, $30, $50, or more to receive a reliable, supported, and frequently updated anti-virus product. The question, then, becomes which one. Norton Anti-virus and McAfee Virus-Scan get most of the attention in the United States, but they are not the only anti-virus programs available. Dozens of different anti-virus programs promise to protect your PC for a price. Ironically, it’s the freebies that can help you choose one.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Other Options

There are a number of other free anti-virus resources, including firewalls and behavior-monitoring software, promise to enhance your computer’s ability to protect itself from harmful infections. Incorporating these tools into your anti-virus regimen lets you further minimize the likelihood of contracting contagious code.
A firewall, for instance, restricts unauthorized individuals from accessing your computer through its network connections. Although a firewall doesn’t target viruses, it can help prevent virus-laden files from infiltrating your system. We recommend that you install a firewall on your computer (especially if it’s connected to a DSL router or cable modem) as part of your overall strategy for fighting viruses. The best firewalls are those you pay for, but you can get adequate firewall protection for free if you know where to look.
If you use Windows XP, for instance, take advantage of the OS’ free Internet Connection Firewall. Open the Control Panel, choose the Network and Internet Connections category, and click the Network Connections option. A list of network and Internet connections will appear on-screen. Highlight the one you want to protect and click the Change Settings Of This Connection option, which you’ll find under the Network Tasks heading in the left pane. In the resulting dialog box, choose the Advanced tab and select the checkbox next to Protect My Computer And Network By Limiting Or Preventing Access To This Computer From The Internet. Click OK to save the change.
Users of other versions of Windows (which don’t have built-in firewalls) can download free third-party firewalls instead. Our personal favorite is Zone Labs’ ZoneAlarm. Others include Agnitum’s Outpost Personal Firewall FREE, Kerio Personal Firewall from Kerio Technologies28, and Look ‘n’ Stop Lite from Soft4Ever.
Behavior-monitoring software doesn’t prevent access to your PC, but it does help by monitoring your computer for suspicious activity. Behavior-monitoring software then isolates each suspicious file or program, which may be an unknown virus or Trojan horse (among other things), and generates an alert, accompanied with a recommendation about how to handle the situation. Free behavior-monitoring programs, such as Security Monitor from Zolt.org and SurfinGuard Pro from Finjan Software, help maintain a healthy computer system.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Build an Arsenal

Installing two or three different programs on your PC just to combat viruses may seem like overkill, but the fact is that you need an assortment of weapons if you want to protect your PC from malicious code. Smart computer users will explore all the options, free or not, and then build a security system that defies infection. We trust you’ll do the same.