I'm constantly amazed by the number of people that fall victim to malware. After having read recent articles expressing the average person's inability to cope with malware, I figured it might be helpful if I blogged about it. So first, I'll detail the five steps everyone should take - these are things that are pretty obvious to anyone with any computer savvy. Then I'll enumerate a few nice tricks I've happened across that may be less well-known.
While there are many things you can do to protect yourself, there are a few critically important ones. According to ZDNet, there's a fifty-fifty chance that your PC will be infected within twelve minutes if you go online unprotected. If you're missing one of the following, I highly suggest getting your ass in gear. Here's my list of essentials.
Antivirus Software: I mention this first simply because it's so obvious. If you're not running some flavor of AntiVirus software, you're just dumb. Sorry. The popular ones that get packaged with PCs are Norton and McAffee, but I'm not a big fan of McAffee. Currently, the antivirus software I use is AVG AntiVirus Free Edition. Works just fine, and I don't have to drop $50 or more.
Firewall: Most people don't really understand firewalls, so they pay AOL or their ISP for protection they don't understand. At its simplest level, a firewall simply prevents access to your machine from other machines. Trust me - you want one. With SP2, windows now includes its own firewall, which will do a passable job if you enable it. The two machines at my house both run the free version of ZoneAlarm, which is a pretty good firewall and provides a couple features that the windows firewall doesn't have.
Windows Updates: You hear every week about some new windows vulnerability. So when you first install windows or when you get a new computer, make sure the windows patches are all installed. And when you get those annoying popups, make sure you just install the damn thing.
Good Browser: When I say "Use a Good Browser", what I'm really saying is "Don't Use Internet Explorer". There are a number of other browsers which are safer and have more features.
The first that comes to mind is Firefox, which I'm sure you've heard of unless you've had your head in the sand for the past year. Built for speed and security, Firefox has got tabbed browsing, popup blocking, and a few other nice features. Plus, it offers add-ons in the form of extensions, which add extra optional functionality. My favorites are ForecastFox, which gives you small weather icons in your browser's status bar, and AdBlock, which allows you to hide annoying advertisements - a convenient albeit iffy feature. Firefox also has incredible find features, a customizable searchbar, and RSS support via live bookmarks.
The next browser worthy of mention is Opera. While Opera is not technically a free browser, there is a free ad-supported version of it. Personally, I think that the ads are one of the major things that's prevented Opera from surpassing Firefox in popularity. Opera has tabbed browsing, built-in Google search, popup-blocking, and a number of other features that Firefox has. It's not as customizable, but in my opinion, it provides a better RSS interface and has better session management.
If you're on a Mac, Safari is the way to go. I've never used Safari since I'm not a Mac guy, but I hear it's got tabbed browsing, popup-blocking, and excellent security.
All are good options, but please - Don't Click the Blue E!
Spyware Scanner: If you've had your computer for any length of time, and especially if you've been using Internet Exploder, you'll be shocked at how much crap is on your machine when you first scan for spyware.
Now, there are a number of products out there for sale, and they all claim to find and remove more spyware than anyone else, but BEWARE! A recent article at PCWorld tested a number of products, and found that the majority of the paid products failed to perform as well as the two leading free products - and many of those sleazy programs actually added spyware to machines rather than removing it. The two I'll recommend most highly are LavaSoft AdAware and SpyBot Search and Destroy. AdAware seems to have nudged ahead in the past year, but both are excellent products. Microsoft now has its own tool, which despite my skepticism of Microsoft seems to do okay, if not as well as the other two tools I mentioned. Of course, it's geared largely towards Internet Explorer...
That said, let me hit a few things that are much less well known. After surfing the net for any length of time, you've probably got a number of third party add-ons installed, such as Flash, Quicktime, and RealOne. While Flash (currently) seems innocuous, the latter two are not. Quicktime is an apple product, and is slowly becoming more and more integrated with the iFamily of products. RealOne is much worse. Both will run in the background and consume a small but noticable amount of system resources. A much better solution is to use Real Alternative and QuickTime Alternative, which I've been using for years now. Both play using Windows Media Player Classic, and will work with embedded video in your browser as well.
If you use instant messaging, you should be aware that installing AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Instant Messenger, or MSN Messenger will install a number of things that you don't want. AIM Installs Wildtangent, YIM installs Yahoo! links and service offers in so many places on your machine that you'll be removing them for weeks, and MSN Messenger, being a Microsoft product, has a number of security concerns. What to do? There are a number of excellent alternatives which you can use and keep your AIM/YIM/MSN ID. GAIM is my personal favorite, but I know others who rave about Trillian and Miranda. These programs allow you to use the same accounts you had with AIM, Yahoo Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, Jabber, and IRC. Very convenient.
Well, that's all I've got for now. If you've got any more tips, feel free to comment.