Antivirus, Antimalware & Firewall Protection
You Need a Security Suite
Isn't the built-in security on today's PCs, phones, and tablets good enough? The answer depends on the OS you're running. — PCMag
In my opinion, the price you pay if the built-in security fails is too high to take a chance. Having a simple antivirus program is no longer sufficient.
Your computer must be protected by a current security suite that includes antivirus, antimalware, anti-phishing, anti-ransomware, keylogger & screengrabber protection plus an effective advanced two-way firewall.
- Multi-faceted and simultaneous blended threats can overwhelm any protection unless the software is designed to deal with all of them simultaneously.
- Because threats develop and change so rapidly, current security software relies more upon recognizing malicious patterns of infections than databases of past attacks.
- Some infections are difficult to repair, particularly ransomware which encrypts your data and extorts money via untraceable bitcoins.
- Malware (sometimes called spyware) can go unnoticed yet risks your privacy by stealing information and slows down your computer. Protection is specialized software with access to a current database of malware and removal instructions.
- Keyloggers capture key strokes including passwords and other private information. There are both hardware and software keyloggers.
Keep ALL Your Software Current
The security battle is a cat and mouse game between malicious actors and security software companies. New threats can overwhelm your security software, especially if you don't keep it up to date.
In addition, you must ensure that your operating system and programs are all current to protect you computer from zero-day and newly discovered vulnerabilities.
- Maintain a current version of your security software, updating it at least daily.
- Install recommended updates and service packs for both your operating system plus installed software programs or apps.
- Upgrade or uninstall obsolete software.
Backup for Insurance
Keep a current backup of everything important to you. These backups are your only method of recovery if a new threat is undetected or cannot be treated effectively (i.e. ransomware).
Free Versions Available
Ensure your protection is always current. You have no excuse for not running security software. Many vendors offer FREE versions of their security software for personal use.
Recovery Can Be Expensive
However, remember the time and money you've put into your computer and software (never mind your data). It can be much more expensive to recover from an infection that your security software is unable to contain or treat than to simply purchase decent security software in the first place.
Most current antivirus programs provide some protection against ransomware but this is different than other malware. A failure to protect your data could be catastrophic.
Several companies provide tools that can help recover files if you send them a copy of an encrypted file with the unencrypted original to help determine the correct recovery tool but there is no guarantee.
What About the Mac?
The Mac has a reputation for being safe without an antivirus, but it is time to change that opinion. If you still think malicious actors have no reason to target Macs, note that Macs outnumber PCs in Starbucks these days.
[T]he volume of Mac threats increased by more than 400% year-on-year in 2019, outpacing Windows "threats per endpoint" by a ratio of nearly two to one. That latter number being the more important as it allows for the fact that Malwarebytes has a larger Mac userbase than Windows. — Forbes
You need to be running decent security (antivirus) software on your Mac.
What About Linux?
Like Macs, many Linux users are under the impression that they don't need antivirus protection. Again, it is time to change that opinion.
Linux is considered to be more secure than other operating systems. However, it's increasingly a target of attackers, as Linux systems are used for critical roles like, web servers and internal file servers. In addition to being susceptible to Linux-based and cross-platform exploits, unprotected Linux machines can also become distribution points for Windows, Mac, and Android malware. — Sophos
You need to be running security (antivirus) software on your Linux computer.
AV-TEST.org doesn't yet test Linux security software for home users (it has a much higher profile in server software) but that time is coming.
You Need to Be Vigilant
Many threats, including ransomware, evolve rapidly and use zero-day vulnerabilities (weaknesses in software that are exploitable even before they are discovered).
Security software using virus signatures can only protect you against known threats. Newer or evolved threats are harder to detect so most security software depends more on detecting unusual or malicious activity (threat emulation) to prevent unknown threats from infecting your computer.
Prepare for Disaster
Be prepared for disaster before it happens. Backup your data regularly so you'll still have a copy of your data if you're infected. You'll lose what isn't backed up, particularly in the case of ransomware, so schedule accordingly.
A USB thumb drive can keep copies of your most current documents between backups and can mean the difference between losing a week's work or rapid recovery.
Hidden File Extensions
Windows hides “known” file extensions by default. While they are known to Windows, many users don't understand the risks they can pose such as which files that can infect your computer.
Several file types (including
.EXE, .SCR, .COM and .BAT) are not safe to open, especially when received as an email attachment.
You should change your settings to unhide known file types.
Disable Macros in MS Word
Word macros contained in an attached document in a spam email are commonly used to infect your computer. You should disable macros in MS Word.
Open a Word document, select Options, click on Trust Center then Trust Center Settings then Macro Settings. Choose “Disable all macros with notification.”
Watch for Unusual Activity
You need to be vigilant and wary of what you download and install. If you notice unusual file activity you might want to disconnect your network connection. While you may not protect your own data, disconnecting from the Internet can protect other computers and devices on your network, particularly if you share files between them.
Avoid risky behaviour.
Like any other piece of malware, common sense goes a long way. The critical thing is it's not going to install files by itself. You have to initiate some action. — Jason Glassberg
- Be wary when opening email. Malware generally spreads though malicious email attachments (including JPG images, documents and ZIP files) leaving you susceptible to data loss and identity theft. See Trustwave's Tale of the Two Payloads as an example.
- Links can be faked, especially in emails. Fake links (those that go elsewhere than what is indicated by the linked text) can be used in emails, websites or text messages. See how to tell fake links.
- Be wary of recent (short-term) domains and shortened links (often used on Twitter).
- Watch what you post online. Information posted online, particularly in social media, can be use to personalize attempts to scam you.
While you can still purchase security packages in retail stores, online sites offer software at reduced rates, with 24-hour access, instant updates, and on-line technical support. I suggest only purchasing online directly from the vendor.
Save Backups of Installation Software & Licenses
If you do purchase your software on-line, be sure to save a copy of the downloaded installation file (preferably on removable media so you can reinstall it if you need to repair it or suffer a catastrophic loss of your operating system).
Not All Products As Effective
Assessing and comparing security products is difficult. Reviews are essentially taking a snapshot of a series of products at a single point in time. Some products will have just completed an update that causes them to rate higher, yet those results could be different in a week or a month because security software deals with the ever-changing world of online threats.
AV-Comparatives.org tests can show significant variations in the ability of different security products to prevent infections:
- green were automatically blocked;
- yellow were user dependent; and
- red were compromised.
These results vary by month as vendors update their products and fix issues. I strongly recommend checking the reviews of products suitable for your operating system:
- Windows Home User
- Windows Business User
- Mac Home User
- Mobile Devices
- Internet of Things tests newer Internet-connected devices such as Google Home or iRobot.
Recommended Security Solutions
ZoneAlarm Extreme Security
I strongly recommend ZoneAlarm Extreme Security for complete security protection on Windows computers while protecting your privacy.
ZoneAlarm also provides a separate Anti-Ransomware service for a monthly fee. This is an additional protection on top of your primary security software. ZoneAlarm Extreme Security includes ransomware protection.
Check Point ZoneAlarm Anti-Ransomware is the most effective ransomware-specific security tool we've seen. In testing, it showed complete success against all of our real-world samples. — PC Magazine
- Kaspersky Antivirus is very highly rated and is recommended for Macs and as an alternative. I prefer the version licensed with ZoneAlarm (Windows only) for more comprehensive protection.
Mac and Linux
- Mac users, see Security Software on my Mac resources page.
- Linux users, see Security Software on my Linux resources page.
Free Antivirus Solutions
I strongly recommend sticking with a paid subscription because it will offer more frequent updates, better security and your requests for help will always get priority over similar free products. Some free versions may not perform as well as you expect.
In its recent endurance test, which was carried out over a period of 6 months, AV-TEST tested 18 Internet security suites for their protection, performance and usability. The test shows: more than two-thirds of the protection packages can be recommended, but the best performance does cost some money. Paid software packages are also the most secure. — AV-TEST
Avast is harvesting users' browser histories on the pretext that the data has been 'de-identified,' thus protecting your privacy. But the data, which is being sold to third parties, can be linked back to people's real identities, exposing every click and search they've made. — PCMag
The cost of repairs to your computer if a free product fails you will far exceed the cost of most security products. However if you truly can't afford it, there are basic (and sometimes excellent) free protection for home users.
ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall
Free Antivirus + Firewall is an excellent free option for personal use but ZoneAlarm Extreme provides better protection and coverage.
ZoneAlarm isn't compatible with any other security software except MS Windows Defender. ZoneAlarm products are only available for Windows computers.
Earlier versions of Windows Defender provided mediocre protection, but current versions in Windows 10 have improved significantly and this shows up in the current reviews.
Windows Defender isn't the absolute best antivirus software, but it's easily good enough to be your main malware defense. — Tom's Guide
Windows Defender’s own developers seem to consider it a Plan B, rather than a main solution. If you install a third-party antivirus, Windows Defender goes dormant, so as not to interfere. If you remove third-party protection, it revives and takes up the job of defense again. The best antivirus programs, even free antivirus tools, perform significantly better in testing and offer more features. — PCMag
What About Other Antivirus Solutions?
Other products may be excellent security software solutions but I have not personally tested them recently. Some require significant system resources (mainly RAM) to run and many have a firewall inferior to ZoneAlarm Extreme, my recommended solution. More about evaluating solutions.
Microsoft Security Essentials
I don't recommend Microsoft Security Essentials (a beefed-up Windows Defender). Support for new installations ended with the end of Windows 7 support, but existing installations can get signature updates until 2023.
Malwarebytes can be downloaded and installed for free. However, without a premium subscription, it doesn't automatically scan your system, making it unsuitable for your security software choice.
It does provide a good interim solution for checking an unprotected (infected) computer. Long-term security is not provided by the free version.
Many ISPs (particularly those offering broadband services) now include security software protection either included as a part of their regular services or for a fee. I've not been particularly impressed by any I've seen.
Many ISPs automatically check email for spam and viruses. This can be an excellent first line of defense but needs to be backed up by an installed security suite since not all viruses are spread by email.
Evaluating Security Software Solutions
Avoid creating your own “suite.” Running multiple security programs can create a conflict that prevents detection rather than improving it. The way security software operates looks to another security program like a threat to the system.
- Purchased software generally offers better protection, especially when threats are evolving quickly.
- Free software provides protection for those that truly cannot afford to purchase protection.
- Verify the system requirements (optimally the recommended rather than minimum requirements) to ensure your computer can run the software, in particular, RAM (memory) and available disk space.
Microsoft enables the Windows firewall by default and checks for the presence of a current antivirus solution and enables Windows Defender by default.
This provides for a base-line protection but is insufficient on its own. The exception is a recent copy of Windows Defender on a fully-updated Windows 10 system.
Third-party security software is designed to work alongside Windows Defender.
Use a Security Suite
A security suite that includes all the security protection is recommended rather than shopping for various components.
Consumers don't have the ability to assess claims made by software vendors. Companies that use misleading language or outright lie about the suitability of software need to be exposed.
"Yet in each of these cases we've repeatedly seen trusted intermediaries undermine the privacy and security of consumers," he added. "No consumer would realistically have an inkling that their antivirus software could be selling their browsing data and—even more sensitive information such as mouse movement— to an array of third parties." — PCMag
Consumers, including small businesses, can check out the evaluations found on reliable websites and magazines to evaluate antivirus and other security products. I strongly recommend AV Comparatives for independent reviews of antivirus software.
- Latest tests shows current test results.
- Summary reports provides historical performance.
- Test results by platform includes tests for home users, business users & IoT.
- Repair tests for Windows shows how well Windows security products did in recovering from a virus attack.
Often one product will excel in one area but be weak elsewhere so be sure to include your specific needs into the evaluation process. Both the strengths and weaknesses of specific products can change over time so be sure to view a current assessment.
Don't trust blanket statements that say that the code is “military-grade” or “NSA-proof”; these mean nothing and give a strong warning that the creators are overconfident or unwilling to consider the possible failings in their product. — Electronic Frontier Foundation
The number of false positives (safe files tagged as viruses) should be few or none. Most antivirus programs look for certain traits that are common to virus activity to detect unknown threats. Unfortunately, this can occasionally tag legitimate programs.
- False alarm tests shows the reliability of infection reports.
Files such as password hacking utilities for recovery specialists are legitimate in some cases but are something that should not be on most people's computers and therefore are not false positives.
Automatic Scans and Updates
Ensure that your security software will update automatically and provide for a scheduled scan to detect issues missed while running a realtime scanner (the one that checks files as they are opened).
Many people simply don't add protection and fail to ensure it is updated frequently (it is like not having health insurance or ignoring expired health insurance).
If you're looking at protecting an enterprise you'd best choose a Managed Security Services Provider (MSSP) because enterprises involve a different level of risk. Trustwave's MSSP Buyers Guide will help you evaluate solutions.
Issues with Antivirus Software
Multiple Security Products can Conflict
If you're having issues with your security software, verify that there are no competing security products installed on your system.
Competing antivirus, anti-spyware and firewall programs can conflict with each other, leaving you vulnerable to infection by viruses, malware and other threats.
- Microsoft's Windows Defender and Windows Firewall are generally either allowed or disabled by most security software.
- McAfee Security Scan Plus (installed with Adobe Flash as an optional download) is not recommended but shouldn't conflict.
While there are some generic similarities between security products (they provide the same function), you'll need to see help specific to the program(s) you're running.
I suggest that you seek help on the support website for your product then try the support forum if you have no luck. Try searching for your specific problem, using an error message or similar search criteria.
Generic searches on the Web can be helpful, but you'll need to ensure that the suggestions don't get you into more trouble or land you on a malicious site.