The internet, while almost infinitely helpful and convenient, poses threats to your computer that can be time-consuming and frustrating to deal with.  With the advent of high speed internet (cable and DSL), and its growing prevalence for home users, the potential to expose your computer to harmful software is higher than it was just five years ago.

What are the threats?

The dominant threat to your computer in this age is called “malware”.   Malware is short for “malicious software” and is the all-encompassing term to describe computer viruses, trojan horses (or “trojans”), worms, spyware, and other “bad” software.  Merriam-Webster even defines malware as “software designed to interfere with a computer’s normal functioning”.

Viruses, trojans, and worms are very similar in that they are designed to disrupt, and sometimes even destroy, files and programs on your computer.  In many cases, the infected computer becomes  inoperable and requires it’s hard drive to be wiped clean of any data and have the entire operating system (typically Microsoft Windows) reinstalled back to its original out of the box state.

In the 21st century, spyware is the most common form of malware that computer users will encounter. Spyware, while not inherently destructive in nature, is obnoxious to deal with and can definitely cause a headache or two!  Spyware is software that sneaks onto your computer usually by fooling you into thinking it is something you want.  It comes in the form of clickable pop up ads, “piggybacking” on software that you actually do want, or pose as legitimate “security” software; just to name a few.  Spyware’s primary purpose is generally marketing or promoting a product or service typically found on a website.  So in most cases, you’ll find that spyware causes a lot of annoying popups, blatantly redirects your web browser to one or more specific websites (oftentimes pornographic sites.), and/or installs itself on your computer as a seemingly harmless “limited” or “trial” software package in the hopes that you’ll purchase the full version or upgrade.  A lot of spyware also sends your browsing history to a specified location on the internet to specifically “target” the popups it forces onto your machine in hopes to cater to what it feels your interests are.  Luckily, spyware doesn’t usually force you to the point of having to wipe your hard drive clean (though it IS possible), but it is a time-consuming nuisance to get rid of.

Apart from the time, and possibly money, you will have to spend remedying a malware infestation; you may run into issues with your data being lost.  If your computer is inoperable, then as mentioned above, you may need to wipe your entire hard drive of its data to completely and effectively remove the infection.  While this will almost definitely rid your computer of the malware, all of your files and programs will be gone.  So if you do not periodically back up your important files then everything you had saved on the compromised machine will be gone!

What can be done?

Since the early 90s, certain software vendors have been designing Antivirus software and making it available to computer users.  The purpose of antivirus software is not only to remove malware infections, but to actually prevent the infections from occurring in the first place.   Imagine unintentionally or unknowingly performing an action that would place malware on your computer and having your antivirus warn you and block it.  The couple of minutes spent avoiding the infection is significantly less problematic than the hours you’d spend fixing the issue.

In the last several years antivirus manufacturers have also been offering entire security suites that include virus prevention, spyware prevention, and firewall software.  Firewalls, simply put, are software that monitor, detect, and warn you of unusual traffic to and from your computer via a network or the internet.    This comes in handy especially with worms, trojans, and spyware.  Worms are called worms because they spread through the internet from computer to computer.  Trojans open up a “backdoor” to your computer for unauthorized users to gain access.  And as mentioned above, spyware sends your browsing history out to the internet.  Usually, firewall software can detect these types of network activity and suspend it until you decide whether or not to allow it.

While antivirus and security software generally work very well, it is critical that the user periodically check that the software is updating itself as soon as an update is released.   Updates can include software patches and virus definitions.  Software patches are basically updates to the core software itself and usually include feature enhancements or stability increases.  Virus definitions are crucial to the program’s effectiveness as well.  New viruses are constantly being created with malicious intentions and each has a certain behavior pattern that is included in the antivirus’s definition file.  So if a new virus attempts to infect a computer without the latest definition file, it is possible the antivirus software will not even know it is a virus and will allow it onto the system.

Most antivirus and security software come with a free trial, but ultimately costs money for the product and future updates.  It is common that the cost of the initial purchase is bundled with one or two years of free updates.  Beyond that you then will have to pay to extend your subscription to continue to download the latest software updates.  If you intend on continuing to the use the product, then it’s very important that you pay for the subscription extension; otherwise your product will not update and you will be vulnerable to new malware.

Some manufacturers offer free antivirus products.  Usually, you won’t receive anything more than an antivirus if you are getting the software for free.  For a firewall and other additional features, you will likely have to pay for the product.  A nice thing about recent versions of Microsoft Windows such as XP, Vista and 7, is that they come with a free built in firewall.  It is less dynamic and has fewer features than your average “paid” firewall, but it generally suffices for most everything your average home user might encounter.

Below is a list of popular antivirus and security software along with their approximate cost.  You can see how generally the prices for similar suites are close across the multiple manufacturers.   It’s hard to say which is the best of the bunch and it is also a matter of preference.  One thing is certain though, you do need the protection and having nothing is not a viable option.

Norton 360 – $70.  http://buy.norton.com/estore/mf/productDetails/productSkuCode/20153252/priceGroupId/ECOM_MKT_ONLINE1ST_PROMOTION

Norton Internet Security – $70.  http://buy.norton.com/estore/mf/productDetails/productSkuCode/20032950/priceGroupId/Master_Cons_PL

Norton Antivirus – $40.  http://buy.norton.com/estore/mf/productDetails/productSkuCode/20032918/priceGroupId/Master_Cons_PL

McAfee Internet Security – $50.  http://home.mcafee.com/Store/PackageDetail.aspx?pkgid=273

McAfee Total Protection – $60.  http://home.mcafee.com/Store/PackageDetail.aspx?pkgid=275

McAfee AntiVirus Plus – $40.  http://home.mcafee.com/Store/PackageDetail.aspx?pkgid=276

Kaspersky Internet Security – $60.  http://usa.kaspersky.com/products_services/internet-security.php

Kaspersky Anti-Virus – $50.  http://usa.kaspersky.com/products_services/anti-virus.php

AVG Internet Security – $44.  http://free.avg.com/us-en/download-avg-internet-security

AVG Antivirus – $28.  http://www.avg.com/us-en/buy-avg-antivirus

AVG Antivirus – Free.   http://free.avg.com/us-en/download-avg-anti-virus-free

BitDefender Total Security – $80. http://www.bitdefender.com/solutions/total-security.html

BitDefender Internet Security – $50.  http://www.bitdefender.com/solutions/internet-security.html

BitDefender AntiVirus – $30. http://www.bitdefender.com/solutions/antivirus.html

Avira Premium Security Suite – $52.  http://www.avira.com/en/products/avira_premium_security_suite.html

Avira AntiVir Premium – $26. http://www.avira.com/en/products/avira_antivir_premium.html

Trend Micro Internet Security Pro – $70. http://us.trendmicro.com/us/products/personal/internet-security-pro/index.html

Trend Micro Internet Security – $50. http://us.trendmicro.com/us/products/personal/internet-security/index.html

Trend Micro AntiVirus + AntiSpyware – $40.  http://us.trendmicro.com/us/products/personal/antivirus-plus-anti-spyware/index.html

ZoneAlarm Extreme Security – $40.  http://www.zonealarm.com/security/en-us/zonealarm-extreme-security.htm

ZoneAlarm Internet Security – $35. http://www.zonealarm.com/security/en-us/zonealarm-computer-security-suite.htm

ZoneAlarm Antivirus – $30.  http://www.zonealarm.com/security/en-us/zonealarm-antivirus-software.htm

ZoneAlarm Free Firewall – free.  http://www.zonealarm.com/security/en-us/zonealarm-pc-security-free-firewall.htm

A famous quote by Ben Franklin is “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.   This applies significantly to the concept of antivirus and security software.  It’s always better to prevent an infection than to have to go through a whole rigmarole to eradicate it.  The bottom line is always have at least an antivirus program on every computer you use and be sure it’s frequently updating itself.  It will give you one less thing to worry about in this age of high speed internet.