Kit: Protect Your PC From Viruses for Cheap

And there you go: that’s how easy it is to completely brick your newly bought PC. Luckily, it’s just as easy to prevent that from happening. So here’s one for the Consumerist Kit: how to protect your computer from viral scumbags without paying a dime. This is only valid for Windows users, the suckers.

1) Get all the security updates from Windows Update. If you’ve never updated before, there will be a million of them.

2) Ditch Internet Explorer. Do your browsing through Firefox or Opera. Not only are both browsers much more pleasant to use, but they are not nearly as vulnerable to exploit as IE6.

3) Download some anti-virus software. There’s no reason to shell out for McAffee or Norton: those programs are system hogs. Try Avast instead, which is completely free. Or, even better, go with AVG, which is actually my preferred XP free antivirus of choice.

4) Of course, scumware and malware can always slip through. So download Ad-Aware and Spybot and run them once a month.

Or, you know, buy a Mac.

Old news to many of our readers, but this is really a bare minimum for protecting your Windows PC in this day and age.


Edit Your Comment

  1. ChazB says:

    As an IT pro that worked in a repair shop for a year I can say that everything up there is very good advice. We had a standard package of software that every computer that came in the door went out with. It was basically 2, 3, and 4 from the list, plus the Microsoft Anti-Spyware. We’d also give the customers a free tutorial on how to use them and keep them up to date. You’d be surprised how much repeat and referral business that we got out of that.

  2. homerjay says:

    “This is only valid for Windows users, the suckers.”

    I think what you mean by that is “This is only NECESSARY for Windows users.”

  3. doikk316 says:

    I’ve never used Avast, but I’ve been using the free edition of AVG for a couple of years now, and it has always worked great.

  4. Toss in my two cents for AVG as well. Anyone know the music used in the movie? That was great.

  5. I love AVG, but as near as I can tell, it’s actually no longer free unless you got a free key in the past. If anyone can find a free link, I’ll be happy to update, since I prefer it.

  6. I second the use of Microsoft Anti-Spy, now called Windows Defender I believe. It’s still free as it’s in beta, and is remarkably effective.

    Also, if you want better protection than the Window’s Firewall, get Zone Alarm’s free one.

  7. viriiman says:

    Spybot and Ad-aware are great suggestions, but I’ve found that spyware comes out MUCH faster then those two programs get updated.

    I also tried Windows Defender on a few machines that I KNEW were infected with spyware, and none of the three programs detected anything. Ran the trial of Spysweeper, and it picked up everything.

    I don’t work for them, and I know this is ways to do it for free, but the best antispyware I can find is Spysweeper.

    (Just wanted to give my $.02)

  8. dwarf74 says:

    John – the free version of AVG is hiding out on its own page.


  9. d0x says:

    I’ve been spyware and virus free for 3 years, and I havent had to reinstall XP in the same time which is amazing in its own right.

    The trick is safe computing. Dont open files if you dont know for 100% that are clean and safe. Use a hardware and software firewall and keep your system up to date.

    My software arsenal consists of the following. FireFox with adblock, ZoneAlarm PRO 5.5 (newer versions are bloated), Windows Defender, Lavasoft Ad-Aware SE, Spybot, Spy Sweeper, and Bitdefender 8.

    I scan maybe once a week with the spyware apps, and once every other week with Bit Defender. I would recomend most people scan more and maybe I should too but the fact that I’ve been clean so long means im doing something right.

    Other things you should do is defrag at LEAST once a week. I do it daily with Diskeeper PRO and I also have it organise my folders for faster loading.

    Another speed tweak is to tweak your computers prefetch settings so it only fetches boot time apps, not everything you ever used.

  10. AcilletaM says:

    One thing I’d recommend is occasionally running the spyware/malware programs after starting the computer in safe mode. This loads only necessary processes and will allow you to remove programs that have the ability to reinfect a computer even after a regular cleaning.

  11. cebailey says:

    Wow, dox – that brings back memories of the Apple commercial where the “switch” guy talks about needing his own IT department to run his PC. I know I sound like t3h fanboi, but I fly around the internets all day with reckless abandon on my Mac, and I don’t have problems with any of that stuff.

  12. bambino says:

    I get enough editorial fanboy-ism on Gizmodo, thank you.

  13. bambino, I understand the sentiment. I was a PC user for, god, what? 20 years. I switched earlier this year. I can not even imagine going back. I am fully aware that I’ve turned into one of those smug Apple guys that I loathe so well, but honestly? It’s hard not to become one once you’re on a Mac. When writing the above post, even though I knew it was the kind of thing that would help out some people, I just basically rolled my eyes at it all, marveling at the hoops I used to jump through.

  14. bambino says:

    I’m fine with everything save the “Or, you know, buy a Mac” line. I’m willing to bet that course of action won’t be useful in less than a year.

  15. “This is only NECESSARY for Windows users.”

    Is it impossible to create a virus for Macs?

  16. “Is it impossible to create a virus for Macs?”

    Probably not. But where the hell is it?

    “I’m willing to bet that course of action won’t be useful in less than a year.”

    You think OS X will be even half as virus-prone as Windows XP in less than a year? I’ll take that bet.

  17. stubar says:

    I am a dedicated Firefox user, and nearly vomit when I have to use IE, but I feel I should point out that Firefox is actually MORE vulnerable than IE when it comes to security issues, but that the guys at Mozilla tend to fix problems a helluva lot faster than Microsoft.

  18. Or, you know, buy a Mac.

    Cue the moaning about how a Mac costs a few dollars more from PC-bigots – who conveniently ignore the fact that jumping through all of these anti-virus/spyware/adware/crapware hoops costs dozens of hours a year – time you don’t and can’t get back.

  19. Angiol says:

    stubar: That’s because Firefox is open source, so it’s a lot easier to find vulnerabilities than in IE. And when they’re found, anybody can fix them, whereas in IE, you have to wait for Microsoft to fix them.

    I use FF, Ad-aware, Spybot, et. al.

  20. Hours spent fiddling isn’t the same as money spent. It’s imaginary money spent.

    I mean, on my part, I most love Macs for their interface, their slickness, the way the entire system feels elegantly tied (aesthetically and through interface design) to the hardware. I have my gripes, but honestly, the amount of nonsense I’ve had to deal with ever since I switched has been pretty much minimal — using a computer is just far cleaner and more pleasant for me now. I do have Windows installed for games, but that’s about it.

  21. d0x says:

    cebailey, I dont have any problems either I just use the scans to be on the safe side.

    Give it time my friend, it wont be long before malware, virus’s and spyware start to attack OSX. There are already numerous document exploits but nobody makes virus yet.

    The reason is there is no money in it. These days 99% of the BS we see is paid for by spammers and thieves to get your personal information and since they want the most bang for their buck they target Windows.

    The shift to Vista should scare them because its is alot more secure then XP ever was or could be.

    Either way OSX isnt a safe haven and you shouldnt treat it as one either because it will come back to bite you in the ass sooner or later.

    There was a span of 2 years when you could use XP with “reckless abandon” and not have to worry.

    “You think OS X will be even half as virus-prone as Windows XP in less than a year? I’ll take that bet.”

    I’ll take that bet as well. We wont see all these issue on a Mac until they have some real market share, which would be at LEAST 20%. Mark my words, once it becomes profitable to attack OSX it will happen and everyone who uses that OS and thinks they are immune will be the first to pay for it.

  22. moejuda says:

    No matter how much a fan your are of your Macs, take a step back. Do you really think their programmers are so infallible? There may very well be some design advantages in OSX over Windows that make it more secure, but I wouldn’t bet too much on it. And security through obscurity can only get you so far, as the Firefox group is quickly learning. I think Bambino is right…as the popularity of the OSX platform increases, you too will have to jump through hoops to ward off the scum on the Internet.

  23. Probably not. But where the hell is it?

    That sounds like a CHALLENGE!

    And yet…I know nothing of creating viruses…

  24. AcilletaM says:

    Very true, it’s not superior programming or design methodology, it’s about market share. Do you really think malware writers are concerned they don’t have your 20 mac laptops in their zombie network with thousands of PC’s? Do you think it’s even worth the effort to try including your 20 mac laptops in their zombie network. No, it isn’t. But if everybody switches to Macs/Firefox/etc. that means everybody including the spammers and malware writers will switch to Macs/Firefox/etc. because that’s were the money and the “I can turn my computer on and play Minesweeper” users will be. The only way you will be able to continue enjoying your circle jerk of smugness is if Macs/Firefox/etc. don’t significantly increase their market share.

  25. That is only partly true. OS X is built on a Unix core, which has 25 plus years as a network OS by design. You don’t think that’s hardened it to exploits? Think again.

    The idea that hackers and virus makers wouldn’t attack an OS over 20% of marketshare is laughable. Even 1% of PC marketshare makes them a rife and profitable target. That “documentable exploits” exist, I have no doubt… but I have a hard time believing there isn’t a single virus or scumware hacker who’s decided to make a go of it in all that time.

  26. d0x says:


    Hackers dont attack the 1% there is no reason to and the fact that you think they would just shows that you really dont know all that much about them or how they operate. We arent talking about oldschool 90’s hackers here this is a whole new generation of for profit hackers who get paid by a 3rd party to do their exploits.

    When you have the choice to install spam zombies on billions of PC’s or millions of PC’s which would you choose? Your going to go the easy established route because you know an uncountable number of people use XP with broadband, no firewall and they have no clue wha a patch is. Its almost like printing money.

    Yes OSX is built on the Unix kernal but thats not the problem. The problem is what they put on top of the Kernal and all the applications as well.

    It will happen and your in serious denial.

  27. Shaggy says:

    So…nobody’s mentioned Linux yet?

    I’ve been running Linux as my main desktop OS for four years now, and I can count how many times I’ve had a virus/worm/spyware problem on, well, NO hands, ’cause I haven’t had any. Defragging my hard drive? A thing of the past (every Linux filesystem I’ve used doesn’t fragment files).

    Now, are OSX/Linux/POSIX-based operating systems vulnerable to viruses/worms/spyware? Of course. Most of the reason why they’re not a target currently is because their marketshare is pretty low. If they gain ground in the future, they WILL become targets.

    BUT…the damage these viruses and worms can do to these OS’s is limited. Why? Because of a little thing called ACL, or Access Control List (more info here: ), amongst other things. Effecting systemwide changes is impossible if the user doesn’t have the credentials; screwing up your userspace is easy, but easily repairable. Now, yes, a poorly configured computer is still vulnerable to damage from a worm/virus, but if the computer is poorly configures, then, well, you’ve probably got other problems.

    Is Linux the panacea to the spyware problem? No, but it can help.

  28. MrCheeks says:

    A warning,

    I just installed the recommended Avast software, and it started causing issues like black screens when I tried to come back from idle time, and programs not being able to launch. I just unistalled it, and everything is working fine again.

    I have a pretty fresh install of XP, and 1.5 gig of Ram, so i don’t think that is the problem. FYI purposes only, it may work fine for you.

  29. d0x says:

    Correct Shaggy, unless of course the xploit can elevate user priveldges to root, which has happened quite a few times in the past even at the Kernal level. Of course the known Kernal exploits (for linux) were patched but that doesnt mean more dont exist.

  30. madderhatter says:

    Also, watch and see how Vista closes the gap. Mac and *nix will suddenly start to see an influx of exploits. I think it will even worsen once WinFS is finally released (if ever).

  31. Sorry, guys! Test!

  32. Innate design advantages/flaws of Mac, PC, and Linux aside…the number of virii for PC seems proportionate to the software available for the platform…and I dare say the this true for Mac as well.

    I would love to get a Mac for more secure computing…in fact, as soon as the Mac software aisle is the same size as the PC software aisle I’ll march right out and get one.

    I set up a PC for my mother-in-law, though I had originally intended to get her a Mac (so I wouldn’t have to worry about constant updates and security software..) but most of the programs she wanted to run were only on PC…go figure.

  33. Oh and Vista and it’s big brother-esque built in DRM can bite my nuts.

  34. homerjay says:

    you don’t think that there are people out there salivating to become the first person to write a virus for OSX or Linux? I think its less about market share than we all think…

  35. AcilletaM says:

    homerjay, viruses/trojan horses/malware for Linux and OSX have already been written. Scanning the links for the Linux link shows some of the articles date to 2001 though OSX only has a couple of variants of the same worm (as classified by Sophos so don’t start the “it’s really a trojan horse misreported” replies) dating back to Feb ’06.

    BTW, the fine print on the Get a Mac viruses page reminds you “it’s never a bad idea to run extra virus and security software”

  36. tri.bassett says:


    If I have to listen to one more Mac user say “well, just buy a Mac” I’m going to club him to death with a copy of my ECO 101 textbook.

    Most of the spyware infestation is put in place to faciliate identity theft, in order to funnel money into organized crime. Most of the dumb-ass computer users in the world run Windows. This is what the military would call a “target rich environment”

    Kinda like my search for the perfect college to attend, when the only statistic I looked at was “female-to-male” ratio.

    But I digress.

    Go ahead, buy a Mac, all of you. Please make the Mac platform (and all the *nix platforms out there) a viable target for those that would take advantage of those users who shouldn’t be allowed in public with anything more sophisticated as a shopping cart.

    If I have been too obtuse. Mac’s don’t sell at Wal-Mart. Until they do, they won’t be a target of professionals, and will remain an unimportant, fringe group.

    For the really dense:

    Grow up and get some significant market share. Then come back and play in the majors…

  37. Shaggy says:


    Heh, it’s not that there aren’t OSX/Linux viruses. Hell, I’ve written several, as programmng exercises (note: I’ve never released a virus into the wild). There are many examples out there, and source code for all of it. Gotta love the open-source ethic!

    But, seriously, the reason why we haven’t seen a major virus/worm/spyware explosion in OSX/Linux is because of Windows’ domination of the OS market. Think about it: if you’re writing a virus, do you want to be able to infect 85% of the machines out there (Windows), 10% (OSX) or 5% (Linux)? A virus/worm thrives through reproduction, and for reproduction (infection), you need new, easily found victims.

    Eventually, I think we’ll start seeing meta-viruses; cross-platform viruses with OS dependant infection/payload mechanisms. And THAT’s some scary stuff.

    DISCLAIMER: I’m just a programmer, not a “hacker” (in the media sense) or a “cracker” (in the computer security sense), and I’m only an amature (at best) in computer security. I also love (really) parenthesis.

  38. There are about 60,000 viruses known for Windows, 40 or so…

    According to established figures, Windows marketshare = 95%, Mac marketshare = 3%, other = 2%.

    Do the math. Someone must be doing something right, or else Windows users are awfully, painfully, stupid. The market share = virus argument proponents should probably go pound sand at this point.

    It’s been proven in many instances (if you care to Google it) that *nix and Mac OS in particular is more secure than Windows. But hey – spend your time running antivirus, adware-removers, and mal-ware-itis. Have fun. I’ll be getting work done on my Unix machine with the candy shell.