Choosing the best antivirus and security software to protect against viruses, hackers and spyware: IT Buyer’s Guide review

Everything you need to know about virus, spyware, phishing and other threats
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The Internet is an amazing place: from the comfort of your own home – or a coffee shop if you’re a laptop user – you can gain access to the world’s information with just the click of a mouse. Unfortunately, it’s also home to some undesirable elements who use hacking, viruses, malware and phishing attacks to gain access to your information – specifically, your address book, credit card number, and bank login details. IT Reviews talks you through the software you’ll need to keep yourself safe.

Online security is an issue that is never likely to go away, so it’s up to you to keep yourself safe. Much of the problem can be solved with user education – simply being aware that it’s unlikely that UPS would email you a compressed file for a parcel you’re not expecting, you reduce your risk considerably. But there will always be attacks out there that can slip past even the most robust of mental defences.

As a result, you’ll need to get some security software. While this particular guide will focus on Windows users, Mac owners aren’t exempt: despite a reputation for improved security, as Macs grow in popularity they’re becoming a more common target for ne’er-do-wells, to the extent that Apple itself recommends that users purchase antivirus software.

Types of security software
Security software can be split into three main groups: antivirus (or anti-malware), anti-spam, and firewall. While these have traditionally been separate products, most companies now bundle them into a single ‘security suite’.

But before you go rushing off with your credit card, there are a few things you should know. Read on to get the low-down on how to make sure you’re protected without spending a fortune.

Antivirus software
Antivirus packages keep watch – predictably enough – for viruses. Viruses are defined as self-replicating computer programs that mean to do harm, and the scanner is designed to spot them before they can wriggle their way into the heart of your system.

Such software also tracks down ‘Trojans’. Taking their name from the wooden horse of Troy, these are programs that pretend to do something useful – frequently the reason why users are encouraged to install or run them on their systems – but which carry out malicious activities behind the scenes, such as running away with your credit card details.

Lastly, antivirus software keeps a look-out for ‘malware,’ a catch-all term for malicious software that doesn’t fit into either of the previous two categories.

Anti-spam products
Anti-spam software aims to detect and filter out those unsolicited emails that clog up your inbox. Although anti-spam technology has been on the wane in recent years as people move to webmail services such as Hotmail and Gmail – with the webmail providers themselves taking care of the spam problem – for those using a more traditional desktop-based email system the software can be a lifesaver, making email usable once more.

A firewall is designed to detect and prevent ‘crackers’ – often referred to in the media as ‘hackers’ – from getting into your system. While a targeted attack against a home user is unlikely, plenty of worms – a type of virus that is self-propagating and doesn’t rely on infecting other files to spread – look for common holes in the operating systems of computers that are connected to the Internet to add another victim to their list.

Firewalls detect suspicious traffic and ensure it’s filtered out and blocked before it can do any harm. For users who are accessing the internet from behind a network router – as many wireless broadband users are – this type of software is less critical, as most modern routers typically contains a firewall of their own. But anyone using a direct internet connection or a public Wi-Fi hotspot would do well to ensure they’re protected.

Getting protected
Before buying security software, check to see what protection – if any – you already have. If you’ve bought your PC recently, the chances are good that it came with a free trial of one of the larger security suites such as Norton or Kaspersky – and while sometimes this is only a 30-day trial, you may find that you’ve got an entire year’s worth of updates included in your purchase.

Free antivirus software
Even if you didn’t get any bundled software, or if your computer isn’t new, you might still get away with a freebie. Microsoft, the company responsible for the Windows operating system, offers a free security suite under the name Security Essentials.

AVG free antivirus
AVG is one of the free options available for home users to protect their PC.

Security Essentials packs an enhanced firewall and impressive programs to guard against viruses and malware – the name given to a nasty that isn’t exactly a virus but is still something you don’t want on your system – into a free bundle for all Windows users.

If you’re not sure about the concept of using security software from the people who made the insecure platform you’re trying to protect, there are other free options out there. Many companies produce a free security product for home users in the hope that it will convince business users to buy a subscription, with Avast!, AVG, and Avira being three of the most popular.

Free firewalls
Firewall tools – which help to protect your system from malicious attacks over a network – are also readily available for free. Windows has one already built in, and if you want to check you’re protected, a visit to the Security Centre in the Control Panel to check that it’s switched on is highly recommended.

As with antivirus scanners, free third-party firewall packages are also available. Comodo and ZoneAlarm both produce a cut-down firewall product for free, in the hope that users upgrade to a paid version for additional features.

Continue for IT Reviews’ guide to paid-for security products and what to do if you’re infected.

Paid-for products
If you’re looking for something that includes a support line you can scream at when things have gone wrong, however, you might be best off looking at the paid-for commercial products.

Thankfully, prices for combined security suites have dropped dramatically in recent years: a good software package can be purchased for under £50, and typically comes with a year’s updates included in the price.

Kaspersky Internet Security 2012
Kaspersky Internet Security Suite is an example of an integrated security solution.

Kaspersky Internet Security, ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite, and Webroot are all well regarded in the industry, and include firewall, antivirus, and anti-spam technologies in a single package to ensure that you’re fully protected against whatever nasties the Internet has to throw at you.

What to do if you’re infected
If you find your system infected with a nasty bug – whether or not you already have some security software installed – then the first step is not to panic. Most of the time it’s possible to clean your system without losing any of your files, providing you go about things in a logical manner.

If you’re a Windows user, you should first reboot into Safe Mode by restarting your system and tapping the F8 key before the Windows logo appears to bring up the boot options menu. Safe Mode is a special, restricted version of Windows that prevents many of your add-on programs from running – and it may help an antivirus application that has been disabled by a virus to start working again, allowing you to run a full scan of your system.

If that doesn’t work, try one of the web-based virus scanners such as Trend Micro’s HouseCall, Kaspersky’s Free Virus Scan, or Panda Activescan. These run a scan on your computer via your browser, and use a different set of definitions to the virus scanner you have installed. As a result, they stand a good chance of finding something that your installed scanner has missed.

Another area to check is the System Restore Points included in modern versions of Windows. These back up your critical system files when they get changed, and can be a handy way to roll back your operating system to a point before the infection happened. You can find System Restore in System Tools, or in the Control Panel in older versions of Windows.

Finally, if you’re a little more technically-minded, there are bootable CDs that help to clean viruses from your system. A tool like the SystemRescueCd bypasses your main operating system altogether, ensuring that it can scan your hard drive for nasties without getting spied upon by a running virus or Trojan.

Security for business
Business users should check licence agreements before buying: many of the cheaper packages are only licensed for home use, and if you get in trouble with a product in a business environment the company producing the software will likely wash its hands of you.

Support is a key feature of commercial security software. Like any software, security packages aren’t without their flaws. Updates to anti-virus signatures in particular have caused problems in the past, misidentifying critical system files as malware and deleting them, only to have the system grind to a halt as a result.

Although commercial software is no more immune that these issues than free software, having forked over cash does leave you in a better bargaining position when it comes to getting your issue resolved quickly.

Whichever type of software you plump for – free or paid-for – the one essential piece of advice to stick by is to keep it up to date. New viruses and malware appear all the time, and without the latest updates installed, your software will not know the tell-tale ‘signatures’ of these malicious pieces of software in order to identify and neutralise their threat.