I'm often asked by friends and family what to use to protect there PC's against Spyware and Viruses. The purpose of this blog post is just to simply list a selection of free tools that people can use to clean up and protect their PC's against the threats posed by Malware.
Malware (i lump Spyware and viruses together to form Malware by the way) is a program or code that has been created with malicious intent. That intent may be to steal your identity, invade your privacy, or to use your computer to attack other internet systems without your knowledge.
One important note, make sure to update the signatures for the tools you use. New threats emerge on a daily basis and for your software to protect you against these threats it must know about them, the way it knows about them is by signature updates.
As with any software, i urge the person installing that software to become familiar with it. Read the programs help files, Google "software-name tutorial", click around in the interface and look at the various options. Only by becoming familiar can you use the tool to it's full potential and effectively protect your computer.
I'll list the tools in the order I consider the most relevant.
1. Windows Password
Make sure you have set a good password on your account. If you have either a blank password or an easy to guess password Malware or attackers can use dictionary based attacks to guess these.
It is also important to have good passwords on all your accounts such as email, internet banking, Face Book etc.. Think of it like this, if i can guess your email password or use a program to guess it using a dictionary based attack and get into your email, i could then could then try the same password on your bank. If that fails i could go to the bank website and tell the bank i have forgotten the password and it will email a new one to your email account which i have access to. BINGO!
Change you password in Windows by either pressing Ctrl-Alt-Delete and selecting Change Password or by going into the Control Panel (Start Menu > Control Panel) and selecting User Accounts. If you have a Administrator account as well as your own change this password to something strong also.
A good or strong password is a word or phrase that is longer than eight characters, has numbers in it and uses symbols (&%$* etc...) and has a capital letter or two. An example is:
2. Windows Update.
As vulnerabilities are discovered Microsoft releases patches to fix these and prevent attackers and code from exploiting the vulnerabilities. These patches are released every month but occasionally Microsoft will release critical patches out of cycle if it deems it necessary. Windows can be set to retrieve these patches automatically.
To do this in XP:
- On the Start Menu, click on the Control Panel and depending on your view select either Security Centre or Automatic Updates.
- From the window presented configure automatic updates and click OK.
3. Windows Firewall
If you consider your computer as a house, it has lots of windows and doors (131,072 to be exact) and these can be easily opened by programs on your computer without you knowing. A firewall will effectively close these windows and doors and only open them if you give permission.
Windows has a built in firewall, it's not the best in the world but it's alright. Turn the firewall on in the Security Center (Control panel again) and have a look at it's settings to become familiar with it. You can view the firewall settings by looking at the Exceptions tab on in the Firewall Settings. Here it lists all the programs that are allowed to bypass the firewall.
Also make sure the tick box for "Display a notification when Windows Firewall blocks a program" is ticked. This will then prompt you when something wants to change your settings.
If you see a program listed that you are unsure of, Google it and find out what it is. You can always remove the tick on the application in the list or delete the entry and next time the programs wants to go out you will get a prompt. Then you'll have a better idea what it is.
Also check out the advanced tab, if you have multiple network cards (LAN and wireless) you can set these up differently or check the options on both.
3. Spybot Search & Destroy
Spybot Search & Destroy (S&D) is a free program that is has many useful functions. Once installed click on the updates button and download the latest updates. Alternatively you can download updates from the website.
After installing the latest updates, click on the immunize button. This will protect your PC from all the current threats that Spybot S&D knows about.
Following immunization click on the "Check for problems" button. This will scan your PC for any installed Spyware and give you the option to fix the problem. Do this a couple of times and if you cannot get rid of something google it and find out more about the problem. Chances are someone has already had the same problem and you can see what they did to fix it.
Update your signatures, immunize your PC and scan for Spyware on a frequent basis, i perform this type of updates and scanning every week.
Spybot S&D has many other Advanced options with can be enabled by the mode drop-down menu. The options allow you to schedule scans, securely shred documents and tweak windows settings among other things.
If you use Spybot S&D please consider making a donation to the software vendor. You can do this by selecting Donations from the Help menu in Spybot S&D
4. Avast Anti-virus
Avast is a really good free Anti-Virus scanner. Once installed it will permanently run in the background and scan any opened files for viruses. You can also scan a drive or file by right-clicking on whatever you want to scan and clicking Scan.
Avast is free for home use but you will need to register it. It will automatically download updates.
You can set the options on Avast by opening the Avast interface from the Start menu (or by he System Tray by the clock). Holding you mouse above any buttons will display a description of the functions available.
CCleaner is a registry cleaner that will clean up the registry on your computer. It will look for old entries, missing Dll's and many other registry related problems.
As well as being a brilliant little tool for help you understand what programs store what information and where (by selecting just that program and performing a scan) CCleaner can remove entries in programs and windows to help protect your privacy. Internet Cookies, list of recently accessed files, browser history, log files
6. McAfee Rootkit Detective
Rootkits are becoming more popular these days as once they installed they can hide themselves from the operating system. Often AV scanners will not detect rootkits and they are as malicious as any other form of spyware or virus. McAfee developed a free tool to detect and remove rootkits. Rootkit Detective is very simple to use. After installation simply run the scan and remove anything it finds. If it does find something and you are unsure whether to remove it or not just Google it. Google will tell you if what has found is bad. Google is your friend. (Sort of.)
As poeple get better at applying patches and using firewalls etc... Attackers are targeting other applications that have widespread usage, such as Adobe Acrobat, Winzip, Quicktime and i-Tunes. As these will not be included the Microsoft patch cycle they are often forgotten about and become a viable target. If you use these applications check on a weekly or even monthly basis to see if there is a newer version, or have a poke around in the application itself to see if you can find a update function or update link.