If you purchased a new Windows computer in the last ten years, you probably got a trial subscription to a third-party anti-malware (formerly called antivirus) program. After about 60 days, this app started bugging you to buy a subscription, warning you that your computer would be at risk if you didn’t. Safe computing? Marketing hype?
When the first computer virus hit personal computers in the mid-80s, protection was as simple as being careful not to insert floppy disks from unknown sources. The Internet changed all that. With always-on connections to millions of internet addresses, it has become important to have some way to lock the digital doors on the devices we all rely on every day.
Modern malware arrives on your computer or phone in one of two ways. The first, less common method is as an infected attachment to an email message. When you open it, it downloads its payload to your device, and wreaks its havoc. The second, more common method is infection by a hacked website or a link on a website. When you go to that website and/or click on the link, the malware payload executes on your machine.
The good news is that both Windows 10 and the Apple Mac OS have built-in anti-malware programs (Defender and Gatekeeper, respectively) and they are both very good at stopping most malware. The problem is that malware keeps evolving, and any anti-malware program is always playing catch-up with the bad guys. In addition, anti-malware programs (free, included with the computer, or paid) perform poorly at stopping bad things that happen because the user initiated it. So, when you click on a link in an email or at a website, most anti-malware assumes you know what you’re doing, because distinguishing bogus files from good ones is very difficult. Crooks know this and cloak malware in innocuous looking files.
Anti-malware third-party vendors want you to think their products add security beyond just stopping malware. Features are available that can tell you if a web site may be compromised, offer a better firewall (Windows and Mac have one already built-in), or monitor the web for account breaches with your credentials. The downside, apart from additional cost, is the added load on your computer’s performance. You may notice an overall slowdown, or the computer may pause when accessing new files as they are proactively scanned.
What about the free third-party anti-malware packages? Vendors like Avast, AVG and Malwarebytes make available free versions of their apps for both Windows and Mac. The downside of the added protection these packages allegedly give you is the nagging to upgrade to the paid or subscription version. They also can slow your computer down.
One of the best tactics is paranoia on your part. Pay attention to the messages the built-in anti-malware software on your Windows or Mac computer shows you. When you see a link on a web site, hover your cursor over it to see the URL BEFORE clicking. If the link shown doesn’t match the name of the site displayed on the web site, don’t click it. Finally, don’t open attachments in email if you aren’t expecting them.
A little caution on your part, rather than buying another program, can save you money and keep your online experience safe.