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Published September 30, 2009
Indeed, with everything that you do on your computer and the information that resides on it, the safety of your sensitive data should be top priority. That said, with a little experience you can traverse the World Wide Web in peace with minimal security on active patrol.
Many readers will probably say "no thanks" and slip out the back door, which is totally understandable. I will tell you flat out that most people are better off with some form of antivirus watching over their shoulder. But regardless of whether or not you keep one on guard, having safe browsing habits is essential to keeping your computer malware-free.
To elaborate on that briefly, "safe browsing habits" means that those who spend their days on shady porn and warez sites need not apply. Recognizing the nefarious from innocuous is your greatest line of defense. Typically, malware gets onto a computer by being bundled with seemingly legitimate software, media, email attachments, and so on; so if something infects your system it's likely you've unknowingly let it mosey through the front door.
Call me reckless and lazy, but I've found that dealing with antivirus software can be quite a nuisance. You have to come out of pocket for most decent products like NOD32 or Kaspersky, while free alternatives are often less equipped and bombard you with ads or other nags. Many are resource hogs, some will result in incompatibility crashes, and others can be annoying to keep up to date -- even more so when it comes to scheduling scans.
All of this is emphasized by Apple's TV adverts, which place a lot of weight on their alleged no-frills antivirus and malware-free computing experience. Now, I know I'm painting with a broad brush here and that many security products offer good enough protection and few to no quirks. But even when I had an antivirus on duty, it only popped up to warn me twice over the span of years, so worrying about active protection has become an unnecessary burden to me.
Obviously you can't catch it all, though, and that's ok. The portal you use to access the Web has changed significantly over the years. Most modern browsers will warn you of a suspicious site, web-based email services scan email attachments, and there are plenty of online utilities that can help you keep safe. In other words, you're probably more safe online now than ever before, if you just adhere to some common sense guidelines.
As mentioned, visiting trustworthy websites and relying on your instinct is essential, but there are a few tools to help you along the way.
Software updates: Keeping your operating system and applications up to date is vital. This is true regardless of how much protection you have, so be sure to watch for the latest security patches.
Periodical online scans: ESET offers a pretty decent online scanner you can use free of charge (it temporarily installs a small piece of software which you can remove after the scan). Additionally, Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware is a very straightforward and hassle-free utility that is worth keeping installed.
I would suggest setting both up before bed every few weeks or as you deem necessary. Running a fine-toothed comb through your system now and again will ensure that nothing has flown under the radar.
Network traffic control: Using the standard Windows firewall in combination with a router that features NAT is generally more than enough to keep your network activity on lockdown.
General maintenance: In between scans, if you feel uneasy about a particular file simply upload it to Virus Total for analysis. Virus Total is a free service that will scan a file with around three dozen mainstream antivirus engines and then show you detailed results for each of them.
Finally, it's no secret that avid users of file sharing technology are at a greater risk of being infected. However, there are reputable faces in the torrent and other communities -- find them, and stick with 'em. Also, be sure to read comments, as many downloaders will report back with their antivirus' findings so you don't have to scan anything yourself.
By taking these precautions, I have kept clean since day one. If you've also abandoned the use of real-time protection, tell us how you stay malware-free in the comments.
Having the most commonly targeted operating system, Microsoft recently stepped up its efforts to make the Windows ecosystem a safer place by introducing the free Security Essentials. This anti-malware scanner replaces the now defunct "OneCare" security suite. Looking at early reactions around the web, it actually seems to work pretty well. If you are intent on using desktop antivirus protection you might want to give it a try, or check a few other recommendations here.
Image credit: Masthead image courtesy of Antispam.br.
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