Pat Cutty, Staff Writer
As someone who’s been in the computer fixing business for quite some time, I still marvel at the amount of stupidity I constantly come across in that line of work. People as a whole just don’t observe basic security practices. It’s maddening, but given that fixing the same three problems over and over does work wonders for my beer budget, I’m loathe to complain too much.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be dishing out a few helpful tips on how to not suck at computing. This column will contain some common-sense (and perhaps not-so-common-sense) tips for smart and safe computing.
Stupid Mistake #1: No virus scanner (or two virus scanners)
In this day and age, where malware can basically be hidden anywhere on the internet, it is downright boneheaded to browse the web without some sort of virus protection. This is not 1998 anymore. Long gone are the days where you could avoid getting a virus by knowing not to open funky email attachments. Nowadays, cybercrooks find all sorts of fun ways to embed little digital nasties in your computer. Bogus Facebook apps, redirected links, pop-ups, impersonation and rigged redirections are just a few things that can give your machine a nasty virus. The great virus-making anarchists of old have been replaced by far more numerous cybercrooks (often in Third World countries) intent on making a quick buck.
The web is not safe, and no matter what operating system (I’m looking at you, Mac fanboys) or web browser you use, if you get hit by one of these without some sort of active virus protection, you’re S.O.L. There’s simply no reason to not have a virus scanner anymore. Even if you’re a cheap bastard like me, there are tons of free options available and a lot of them are as good if not better than the ones you pay for.
On Windows, Avira, AVG and Avast all have pretty good free offerings. My two favorites are Comodo and Microsoft Security Essentials (particularly the latter, though DO NOT use that with a bogus Windows install). I like these because they don’t nag you to buy the paid versions (in MSE’s case, there isn’t one) and are pretty effective without eating your system’s resources too much. MSE is a fantastic program, and it should show up in Windows Update if you don’t have a virus scanner installed (if not, just Google it). There’s also Sophos Endpoint suite provided free by the school, though on Windows I’d recommend MSE over that. For Macs, use the free Sophos. If you’re not at school, and replace your Mac, and can’t get Sophos from the school anymore, the only reputable free scanner I know of is ClamXAV, an OS X port of the venerable ClamAV for *nix.
Another related but equally moronic mistake I see all the time is the practice, both intentional and not, of having TWO active virus scanners on a computer. You may think that two is better than one, and if you do, you’re WRONG. Two active antivirus scanners running on the same machine is in fact really, really bad. Virus scanners require low-level access to really important core system stuff, and they don’t like to share. In fact, they’ll even sort of fight each other. Having two virus scanners (or even combining one with a second active antimalware program such as Spybot S&D) is in many ways worse than having none at all. You’re just as unprotected and you have two now-useless pieces of software eating all your system resources.
To avoid unintentional occurrences of this, uninstall any virus scanner you have before installing a new one. This includes the bothersome trial versions included on all new PCs. Trials run out, but they don’t uninstall themselves at that point (most, in fact, just nag you).
The RIGHT way to go about bolstering your protection is to have a non-active scanner around, like the free version of Malwarebytes or Stinger (a free, self-contained scan tool periodically released by McAfee). Both of these will often catch things that conventional antivirus software will miss, which is helpful in an emergency. In fact, I use these very often when removing malware. Oh, and run weekly (or at least bi-weekly) scans with both that and your regular antivirus software.
I’m going to be answering reader questions as part of this column. If you have a question, comment, concern or insult, feel free to email it (with “State Times Tech Question” in the subject line) to email@example.com. I might just answer it in a future article.