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PC MAINTENANCE FOR BEGINNERS / HOW-TO GEEK SCHOOL

How-To Geek

Lesson 3: Securing your System

PC Maintenance 3

So you’ve come this far in the series meaning you’ve got your system cleaned up and understand a great deal more about maintaining it. Or, you’re just tuning in, and that’s alright because securing your system is just a good a place to start as any!

So what do we mean when we say “securing” your system? Surely we don’t mean strapping it to a desk with a padlock. Well, that’s one way you can lock your computer down, but what we’re talking about is throwing up a potent defense that will halt most malware infections before they even get on your computer.

We refer also to the many browser extensions you might have installed, many of which may be spying on your surfing habits. And, of course there’s securing your system against prying eyes with strong passwords.

Think of this lesson as the “motherly advice” part. Most of this stuff seems like common sense but it’s amazing how many users still fall for old tricks and engage in bad practices.

Avoidance is your Best Defense

Before we get to the concrete steps, let’s talk about something more pragmatic: avoidance. While we can blame the underbelly of the Internet for many of our malware woes, the fact remains, the user is still most often responsible for introducing malware to their systems. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter and we could just install whatever we want with no fear of consequences. But for whatever reason, be it sadism or profit, so-called hackers seem bound determined to ruin our days.

But it’s not quite so doom and gloom. You do have some control over this and avoid “Death by Toolbar.”

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Dodgy websites

How’s that site look? Does it look like the Internet equivalent of seedy dive bar? Fact is, most of the websites out there are just fine but every now and then, there’s that one that isn’t. When you have any misgivings about installing a program from a suspicious source, don’t. Take some time and research it, see if anyone has complained about it or if has been reported it as malicious.

Distrust e-mail

Stop if you’ve heard this one before: don’t open attachments or links from unknown or suspicious sources. While most people use webmail nowadays, which usually has virus scanning incorporated into it (for example, Gmail scans at the server level so malware is less likely to even reach you), if you have a business or regular ISP e-mail account, you still need to exercise care in case something slips past.

Insert with caution

Let’s say someone gives you a thumbdrive with some important files they want to share. It’s fantastic now that we have little gigabyte+ drives that we can save hundreds of files to. But, just like CD-ROMs and floppy disks, removable media is inherently risky. Never simply open these files without at least first scanning them for malware.

Pop ups of doom

Have you ever seen those little pop ups while web browsing that suddenly appear telling you have viruses on your system? Or, that your system is too slow and needs fixing? These pop ups act like they’re trying to help you out, but what they really want you to do is help them get their malware or adware into your system. If those popups are in the web browser window, they probably aren’t real. Don’t fall for these scare tactics; close out that window and go about your business.

Sneaky bundling

A lot of software comes bundled with other software that you are tricked into mistakenly installing with a bunch of redirection and fakery. You may be accepting the licensing agreement for that piece of software, or you may simply be agreeing to install a bundled toolbar that tracks your web surfing habits.

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When you’re installing anything, you don’t necessarily need to read all the fine print (only a few people really do) but you should at least know what you’re agreeing to. Are you agreeing to the actual program you downloaded, or is it some “search helper” or toolbar that you can never seem to get rid of? Bottom line, read carefully.

It’s also worth noting that you should really consider whether or not you need that freeware application in the first place. If you can’t think of a reason that you must have it, you should probably skip the installation process entirely.

What’s in a torrent?

If you download anything off a peer-to-peer network, you’re always at risk of getting more than you didn’t pay for. When at all possible, scan anything your get from these sources or simply download from a more reputable source.

Using anti-virus

Using an anti-virus program is step 1 in securing your system. Okay, picking a strong password is step .09 but we’ll get to that in just a bit.

Anti-virus? Don’t we mean malware? Technically, yes, we can define malware as any piece of software intent on causing harm to your system and the data contained therein. This may include, but certainly isn’t limited to, viruses, Trojans, keyboard loggers, adware, rootkits, and more. But, we all still call it anti-virus or AV, so we’ll leave it at that.

Your anti-virus software should fulfill a few requirements

  • It should update automatically with the most current AV definitions.
  • It should reside in your system’s memory and continuously scan for threats.
  • And, in doing so, it shouldn’t detrimentally affect your system’s performance.

Almost all the AV software on the market will do the first two items perfectly well. In case of the last one, some AV programs create very little system overhead while others are pig-like. There’s also the matter of effectiveness, not all programs are created equally and some catch more malware more consistently.

So, which one?

Deciding on anti-malware protection can be daunting. After all, do a simple search for “anti-virus” or “malware protection” and you’re bound to get dozens of results.

There once was a time when we could simply recommend Microsoft Security Essentials for Windows 7 and Windows Defender for Windows 8.x. But recently even Microsoft admitted that MSE and Defender may not be completely effective and users are recommended to find a third-party option. So what are those third-party options?

When judging anti-virus (AV) software, AV Test does a fairly good job of laying out all the choices in a clear manner. Like we said, we have an abundance of choice but only a few are free. You’re more than welcome to peruse the list, but let’s highlight some of the free stuff. After all, Windows costs quite a bit of money, we shouldn’t have to pay more to keep it running properly.

These are four of the higher rated AV programs on the market. Each come with a free, basic anti-virus component.

Product Platforms Pay version Free Trial Download Page
Ad-Aware PC only $24.00 to $48.00 Yes http://www.lavasoft.com/products/ad_aware.php
Avast PC, Mac, iOS, Android $39.99 to $99.99 per year Yes http://www.avast.com/en-us/index
AVG PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Windows Phone $54.99 Yes http://www.avg.com/us-en/free-antivirus-download
Avira PC, Mac, iOS, Android $44.99 – $133.99 Yes http://www.avira.com/en/avira-free-antivirus#

 

Disabling Windows Defender to Install New AV

On Windows 7, you have to install anti-virus manually so any of the above-referenced software is a great place to start. All of the free versions will be more than adequate to protect your system against most threats. It’s important to keep in mind that new malware appears every day, so there’s always the chance that some “zero-day” threat will infect your system but that’s honestly the chance you take by being online in the first place.

On Windows 8.x, Windows Defender is installed and enabled by default. In order to avoid having conflicts with any new AV software you install, you should first disable Defender and then immediately install your new AV.

To disable Windows Defender, open it from the Control Panel. Click on the “Administrator” option from the “Settings” tab. Uncheck the box next to “Turn on this app” and click “Save changes.”

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A box will pop up warning you to check your AV software in the “Action Center” control panel. You can simply dismiss this box and install your new software.

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How-To Geek Recommends: Avast! Free Antivirus

When it comes to recommending any one AV scanner, we still say do some reading and try a few things out. But, if you’re simply looking for something to install right now and forget about, then you will be well protected with “Avast! Free Antivirus.”

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Avast! is a pretty comprehensive program and though it is free, it will try to upsell you to the pay version. It’s up to you whether you actually want to shell out money for extra bells and whistles. We advise against buying anything that has a free version and does the job.

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The Avast! interface is also pretty busy and you’ll probably find a lot more functionality than you’ll actually use. Also, it can be pretty resource-heavy so if your system slows down too much, then you might want to try different AV.

But, “Avast! Free Antivirus” scores well in the most important category: actually identifying, catching, and eliminating threats. Time after time, it ranks at the top of lists across the Internet.

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Living just north of the border, in what he calls Practically, Mexico, Matt spends his days scouring the latest tech news, writing e-books, and attempting to create the perfect breakfast burrito.

  • Published 03/12/14

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