5 min read

15 free security programs that work

The best virus, spyware and firewall utilities that won't cost you a dime

From the moment you switch on your PC your system faces countless Internet-borne dangers, including spyware attacks, viruses, Trojan horses, home-page hijackers, and hackers trying to weasel their way into your system.

And the Internet isn’t the only source of trouble. Anyone with access to your PC can invade your privacy by prying into which Web sites you visit — and learning a great deal more as well.

But fighting back is easy. We’ve found 15 great pieces of software — firewalls, spyware busters, antivirus software, rootkit killers, and general Internet security tools — designed to protect you against any dangers that come your way. They’re free, they’re powerful and they’re easy to use. So what are you waiting for? Start downloading.

Preventing and Eliminating Malware

From firewalls to antivirus software to tools for combating rootkits and spyware, here are some great downloads to protect your system against malicious attacks.

ZoneAlarm: Check Point Software’s ZoneAlarm may well be the most popular free firewall on the planet, and the most recent release (finally) protects Vista machines. Arguably, ZoneAlarm is the product that made everyone conscious of the need for firewall protection. It’s extremely easy to use, and its method of configuring outbound protection is particularly useful. Whenever a program tries to make an outbound Internet connection, ZoneAlarm announces it with a pop-up alert. You can then permit or disallow the connection, on a one-time basis or permanently. Configuring your level of protection is a simple matter of moving a few sliders. Though the free version of the software is exclusively a firewall, Check Point also offers for-pay security suites. But if all you’re looking for is a firewall, stick with the free version.

Comodo Firewall Pro:ZoneAlarm is extremely popular, but that doesn’t automatically make it the best free firewall you can find. One formidable contender is Comodo Firewall Pro, which independent testing site Matousec rated as the top firewall. Matousec found that Comodo offered the highest level of antileak protection, one measure of a firewall’s effectiveness. Comodo offers true two-way firewall protection, is highly configurable, and (unlike most other firewalls) provides a great view of your system and your Internet connection.

Avast: Tired of dealing with bloated, overpriced security suites that bog down your system and cost an arm and a leg, when all you want is antivirus software? Then get Avast, a superb antivirus program that’s free for home and personal use. Because it’s a lean piece of software it imposes a relatively light burden on system resources and RAM. Despite this, it kills viruses in their tracks and has plenty of extras, including live scanning to prevent viruses from infecting your PC in the first place. Avast can scan regular and Web-based e-mail for viruses, too, and it protects against instant messaging viruses, peer-to-peer dangers and more.

AVG Anti-Rootkit: One of the most feared types of malware is the rootkit — malicious software that many types of anti-malware can’t detect. Not uncommonly, bad guys use rootkits to hide Trojan horses, which can then be used to take over your PC without your knowledge. AVG Anti-Rootkit’s sole purpose is to find and kill rootkits. Run it and it scans your PC, sniffing rootkits out and removing any it finds. (Note that this utility doesn’t work with Windows Vista.)

Spyware Blaster: Some of the nastiest kinds of spyware — autodialers, home page hijackers, and others–install themselves as ActiveX controls. Spyware Blaster protects you against them, blocking the installation of ActiveX-based malware and other types of spyware, and eradicating tracking cookies that might otherwise invade your privacy. The program works with Firefox, Opera or Internet Explorer, and it prevents your browser from being diverted to dangerous sites. One particularly nice touch is the utility’s System Snapshot, which (as you’d expect) takes a snapshot of your PC; if your computer gets infected later on, you can revert to the clean version.

Assessing risks to your system

Is it safe or isn’t it? Whether you’re asking this question about your own system, a site you’d like to visit, or a link you’re tempted to click, you need the right tools to help you understand the level of risk involved. These utilities appraise the situation and deliver an informed assessment of where you stand.

AOL Active Security Monitor: Not being a big fan of AOL in general, I was initially leery about downloading and using this free tool. But this simple, straightforward application looks at the security of your PC, reports on what it finds, and makes recommendations. It checks to see if you have antivirus software installed and, if so, whether the definitions are up to date. Then it does the same for anti-spyware, tests whether you have a firewall enabled, and checks for peer-to-peer software that could pose a danger. The monitor doesn’t have any protective capabilities itself, but it warns you if you need some. Be aware, however, that the software doesn’t work with Windows Vista. And take its recommendations with a grain of salt: It touts for-pay AOL software such as the AOL Privacy Wall over free software that may be better. Still, if you’re looking for some quick security recommendations, it’s worth the download.

McAfee SiteAdvisor: On the Web, unlike in the real world, it can be hard to recognize a bad neighborhood when you’re wandering around in it. There are no boarded-up windows, no empty storefronts, no hard-looking men lounging on corners or in doorways. In fact, the prettiest and most inviting Web site may harbor all kinds of malware. That’s where the McAfee SiteAdvisor comes in. It warns you when a Web site that you’re about to visit — or are already visiting — may be dangerous. You install it as an Internet Explorer toolbar or as a Firefox plug-in. Then when you search with Google or some other search engine, it displays color-coded icons next to each search result, indicating whether the site in question is safe (green), questionable (yellow), or clearly unsafe (red). It checks sites for downloads that may be dangerous and for evidence that they will send you spam if you give them your e-mail address. The toolbar offers similar reports about the sites you’re currently visiting.

LinkScanner Lite: This is another good tool for determining whether a Web site harbors dangerous content. Open LinkScanner Lite and type in a site URL and the utility checks the site for dangerous scripts, bad downloads, and other hazardous content. It also warns you about phishing sites and other potentially fraudulent online operations, and it integrates with search sites in much the same way that McAfee Site Advisor does, putting icons next to search results to indicate whether they are dangerous or not. Unlike Site Advisor, though, it doesn’t check whether sites harbor adware or spyware.

Internet Threat Meter: Every day it seems new threats hit the Internet. Symantec’s Internet Threat Meter keeps you informed about the latest arrivals and includes a link to a Symantec site where you can get more information and find fixes. The program runs as a nifty little widget in Windows XP, or as a Sidebar Gadget in Windows Vista, gathering data about the latest threats and reporting the results to you.

Trend Micro HijackThis: Like it or not, no single anti-spyware program can detect and eradicate all spyware. Consequently your favorite anti-malware utility doesn’t fully protect you. If you suspect that you’ve been victimized by spyware, but you haven’t been able to track down the source of the trouble using your usual diagnostic software, give HijackThis a try. It thoroughly analyzes your Registry and file settings and creates a log file reporting its results. If your system is infected with spyware that file will contain clues about th