Playing and working on the Internet can be dangerous; new viruses, malware threats, hoaxes and frauds are uncovered every day. While paid services and software offer an impressive list of features, you can cover the basics of Internet security with an array of free anti-virus and spyware detection programs, firewalls and browsers, plus a good dose of common sense.
While many anti-virus programs such as McAfee, Norton and Panda offer free trials or evaluation copies, there are a couple of completely free options as well. Avast and AVG are free downloads. AVG pulls slightly ahead with features such as built-in protection against spyware, preliminary scans and safety ratings of websites listed in search engine results, as well as the AVG Toolbar, a browser plug-in that scans websites in real time while you surf. Avast has a handy feature that scans P2P and instant messaging programs. If you're running Windows 8 or 8.1, the operating system ships with Microsoft Defender, which provides anti-virus and anti-malware protection as long as you keep the program updated. For Windows 7 users, Microsoft provides the free Microsoft Security Essentials suite if you have a genuine, activated copy of the OS.
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Spyware and malware are scripted threats that sneak in with browser window hijacker programs, tracking cookies and pop-up windows that won't go away. Ad-Aware and Malwarebytes can catch all types of malware, including hoax antivirus programs that install themselves by tricking you into clicking a pop-up window and convincing you to pay for 'updates.' Ad-Aware asks you to complete a consumer offer before you can access the free download. Malwarebytes is free with no strings attached. The only noticeable difference between free and paid versions is that you have to manually start the scanner on the free version.
If your computer belongs to a network behind a physical firewall and router, then the default Windows firewall should work fine for you. But if you prefer extra protection or have a single computer connected to the Internet, the ZoneAlarm firewall is an effective free alternative. The free version provides basic protection while the paid version is more flexible with options and scheduling.
While all the popular browsers are free downloads, some have a bit of extra security included. All major Web browser applications offer private browsing, an option that keeps your surfing out of the browser history. This lets you safely use passwords on a public computer or keeps nosy cubicle neighbors out of your business. Additionally, all major browsers varying levels of security against phishing attacks and malware.
An essential part of Internet security is free and right between your ears. Common sense goes a long way in defusing many threats. Know what antivirus programs you use, don't click on links that look suspicious, don't download attachments in e-mail, be cautious when clicking on social media sites and check Snopes.com often to bust those panicky virus rumors forwarded to your inbox.