May
30
2011

Security Matters: How I keep my PC safe from malware and viruses

I take computer security fairly seriously. The worst possible computer problem I can imagine is getting my data stolen or destroyed. Bank logins, retirement accounts, thousands of photos & videos, tax returns and other personal information are all sitting on my computer. If my little fortress of data were to be compromised, I would be devastated. On top of that, my wife would probably kill me. So the only thing to do is stay secure.

Also, for you Mac people, please pay attention. It’s been a long held assumption that if you are using a Mac, you don’t need virus and malware protection. This was fairly true for a while, but not because it was an inherently safer environment. Think of the people who make viruses as running a business. Why target an extremely small set of customers (Mac users) when you can target the majority of people (Windows)? Now that Mac usage has grown in the past several years, the business of making viruses targeted towards them makes much more sense. This is evidenced by a recent malware program disguising itself as ‘Mac Defender’, which to the casual eye actually looks like it’s trying to help you. This is an excellent writeup on the Mac Defender malware. Please read it, and be aware that the good old days are gone, and you need to be cautious.

Back to my setup. Following is my little combo of free Windows programs which have worked for me over the past few years to keep me safe from viruses and malware:

Avast! Free AntiVirus

These days, every computer must have some form of anti-virus program running on it. Even if your computer never touches the internet, I would still recommend it. All it takes is an infected friends USB thumb drive, and your computer can be toast. Avast! Free AntiVirus hits a lot of major points for me. It’s free, it’s fast, it’s low on resources, it ranks really well on all of the anti-virus charts, and it’s easy to update. This serves as my first line of defense. It’s always on, scanning and preventing files from infecting me, in real time.

Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware

What exactly is malware, as opposed to a virus? I think that’s a larger discussion than this post can take on. The way I think of it, is malware can be more mischievous and yet subtle in its intentions. For example, it may not have any noticeable impact on your computer, but could be using your idle processing power to silently spam thousands of people behind the scenes. You could go on for years without ever realizing anything was actually wrong. While Avast! takes steps to stop malware, I like to have a dedicated program as well. This is where Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware comes in. Free, fast, and easy to update, it fits the bill nicely. I run this once a week manually. It takes about 5 minutes.

Ad-Aware Free

This was more popular several years ago, but Ad-Aware Free has been updated recently, and is once again a valuable tool in the defense of your computer. Much like Malwarebytes’, I do not let this do any real time scanning, and run it manually every week or so. This one also takes about 5 minutes. I have this because no malware detection is perfect, so it’s entirely possible that one program may miss something that another will catch. Maybe I’m a bit paranoid, but hey it’s easy, quick, and I’m still malware free, so why not?

CCleaner

Once everything is ‘safe’, there can still be a whole bunch of cruft left over on my computer from heavy web usage. CCleaner gets rid of all temp files, browsing history, cookies etc. It’s very configurable, and lets you keep the Window Registry clean as well. The end result is that your browsing history is more private, and your computer will stay nice and clean, which can indirectly help it’s overall speed. I run this manually about twice a week.

Windows Updates & Firewall

If you’re on Windows, then PLEASE make sure you install every official Windows Update. Change the setting to automatic if it’s not already there. Someone finds a problem or vulnerability with Windows and Microsoft fixes it, and pushes it out to users. Why would you not have this on?! The Firewall should also be on. This is a piece of software that essentially monitors your network and can help prevent malicious software from gaining access, or taking control of your computer. Windows Updates & Firewall are both on by default these days, but if you’re not sure, please take a look.

KeePass Password Safe

While thinking about this post, I did an honest evaluation of my web safety and realized that there is indeed a hole in my game. I basically use a slight variation of the same password for EVERYTHING I do. I know I’m not the only one, be honest. Ideally, I would have a different password for each site. That would be impossible to remember though. A coworker recently told me about KeePass, which solves this problem. Basically, KeePass stores passwords for every site you go to, and you never have to type them in. It even generated them for you. It stores them all locally, and encrypted. You basically log in to the KeePass program with one password, and it knows all of your other passwords for every site. So if you’d like to make managing passwords safer, and easier, please check out KeePass.

So there it is, my cocktail of safety. It may seem like a lot to do, but it’s really pretty simple. The Windows Update/Firewall stuff is essentially hands free, as long as it’s already turned on. So is the Avast! scanning. It updates itself automatically. Malwarebytes’ and Ad-Aware both take about 30 seconds to update, and 5 minutes to scan. CCleaner takes about 30 seconds total as well. So I spend about 12 minutes per week to stay safe and clean from Viruses and Malware. Totally worth it, and I’d recommend you do the same. Of course, if you think I’m missing something, or have a more powerful safety combo, please let me know!

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I like technology, sci-fi, fantasy, and anime. You know, cool geeky stuff.

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