Avoid anti-virus scams

October 31, 2011 

Q: Which anti-virus software do you recommend? Thanks for the help.

C.B.

That's a simple question with a relatively complicated answer.

Despite all the anti-virus software available to protect consumers, the threats keep coming at a rapidly accelerating pace. Anti-virus provider and research firm Panda Security reports that in 2010 alone, the number of computer viruses increased by about 50 percent.

Jeff Crume, an engineer at IBM who specializes in computer security, says this digital arms race favors the bad guys, since reactionary anti-virus companies are often scrambling to identify and find ways to counteract new and evolving threats.

But that doesn't mean it's hopeless - especially if you take the proper precautions.

Crume recommends checking out detailed evaluations from tech-focused publications to figure out what software is right for you. Places such as Consumer Reports, PC Magazine or CNET are good places to start.

Installing something, he says, is better than doing nothing. But there's good reason to be careful.

Panda Security dubbed 2010 "the year of the fake anti-virus." This "scareware" is designed to trick users into thinking their computers are infected, prompting them through a deluge of popups or supposedly "free scans" to purchase dud software that does little but siphon away their hard-earned $19.99. With flashy graphics and names like "SystemGuard 2009," programs like these can seem legitimate.

Rogue anti-virus software was first reported four years ago, and since then Panda says almost 9 million unique strains have been detected.

"This sort of 'scareware' scam is increasingly common these days and preys on the fears that we all have, to one degree or another, that our system may be or could become compromised," Crume said.

That's why he emphasizes that the source does matter.

"Shrink-wrapped software from a well-known vendor is probably the safest option," he said. "Second would be a download from that vendor's website - so long as you are really sure it is that vendor's website because you typed in the address carefully into your Web browser yourself."

Back it up

There is one extra step he recommends when trying to keep your system safe: Back up your important data. Many relatively inexpensive external hard drives include software to do this automatically, which Crume says is vital.

"If you are having to remember to do your backups manually, you will probably fail," he said.

Cloud-based backup services, which store your data remotely via the Internet, are another good option, as long as the service encrypts its information.

Although there are several important software and hardware elements to such a strategy, Crume says one of the most important parts of protecting your system is to check your behavior.

Be careful about what you download and where you visit. Don't open unexpected attachments. It sounds simple, but these measures go a long way.

"There are no guarantees in avoiding computer viruses, just as there are no guarantees in avoiding biological ones," Crume said.

"Take the reasonable precautions - protect your computer with malware tools as you would your body with vaccinations, and try to avoid coming in contact with infected hosts. Then go about your business as usual."

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