Keeping Your Computer Safe

by Tim Gesner

I work on computers for a living. I'm constantly fixing computers for people and it's almost always because of a virus they've gotten (and usually more than one). I'm amazed that there are still people who aren't running an antivirus program on their computers. What many/most people don't know is that all of those "professional" antivirus programs that major corporations use on their computers at work often have 100% free equivalents that are 99% just as good. The trick is knowing they are out there and knowing where to look.

One particular program that is especially effective against viruses is Avast Antivirus, which has a free Home Edition. Avast is a great program that is simple to use, and most importantly, it updates itself. You don't have to do anything with it, but set it and forget it. It does the rest. Avast works really well with Windows Vista too. There are several other equivalently good antivirus programs available for free. You should be aware of this, because sometimes a program doesn't work well or can interfere with other programs, but that doesn't mean you should do without. Just download a different one! AVG Antivirus is another fine example. These programs are top-of-the-line and do just as good of a job keeping your computer clean as the paid-for versions and won't cost you a dime.

Another thing my clients don't know is that an antivirus program should not be the first and only line of defense on a computer. You also need what is known as a "firewall." In construction, a firewall is a fire-resistant wall built to slow the spread of fire from one side of a building to the other. In computers, a firewall does basically the same thing. However, instead of a fire, it is intended to stop hackers from infiltrating your computer and taking it over for their own means, such as stealing personal information from your computer, which is not the same thing that an antivirus does, although some antivirus programs do have integrated firewalls and some viruses are used for hacking. Sometimes your Internet Service Provider has a firewall it uses and offers as a service, but usually they don't. Your wireless router or your cable provider's Internet router may have a built-in firewall, but many times those are "hardware" firewalls and can not be easily updated to be able to see and deal with new threats. Windows XP and Vista have built-in firewalls, but they are often disabled or even turned off entirely, depending on how Microsoft Windows is configured. You can download a free firewall called Zone Alarm that does a really great job, but the program has a bit of a learning curve and is sort of hidden on the website (they really want you to pay!). In my opinion as a professional, it does a better job than the Windows firewall, and as such, I use it on my own home computer, instead of using the Windows built-in firewall. Whatever you decide, you should use one or the other.

Here's a word of warning. There are many harmful and malicious programs on the Internet. Please don't do a search for "free antivirus" or "free firewall" and download and install the first one you come across. Many of these programs are antiquated and ineffective. At worst, they're complete fakes, known as Malware, that are designed to get you to download a program to scan your computer and then tell you that you have a "Heinz 57" variety of viruses and that the only way to clear them is to pay for a full version of their software. That "full version" often does nothing, except say it took off the viruses. Then it will usually load a different version later on with new fake viruses, which asks you for even more money. I'm almost ashamed that my own mother downloaded one of these programs, and paid $50 to have her "fake" viruses removed. This is the modern-day equivalent of computer blackmail. If you have already experienced one of these types of scams, you know how incredibly hard and complicated it can be to remove these types of programs once they have been installed. Do your homework and research any "free" program you are thinking about downloading. Make sure it is from a reputable site. If the name of the site is "" it means they've misspelled "Microsoft" and the site is based in Czechoslovakia, not Redmond, Washington. My advice is to treat the Internet like you are in downtown New York at midnight, and stay in the well-lit areas. You'll save yourself a lot of money, both today and down the road.

Tim Gesner is an alleged "Computer Geek" and has been working professionally in the computer business for over fifteen years.

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