Free security software keeps you safe online

Full suites provide an extra layer of protection, but they’ll cost you

Published: April 02, 2014 02:45 PM

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You don’t have to spend a penny to protect yourself from most online threats. That’s what we learned after scanning 13,000 malware files, visiting 75 malicious websites, and checking out 1,000 phishing sites. Free anti-malware programs delivered protection that's good enough for most Windows users, even compared with Internet security suites that cost from $60 to $101.

The best free package in our security software Ratings, Avast! Free Antivirus, did very well at guarding against threats from websites—for example, by preventing malicious sites from downloading malware onto your computer. Avast! was also quick to react when new viruses were discovered.

There are some holes with any free anti-malware package, but you can fill those in with other free software. Use the parental controls built into Windows to keep your kids in line. Download a free anti-spam program like Spamfighter if you use stand-alone e-mail like Windows Mail or Outlook. If you’re using a Web-based service like Gmail, it already has strong anti-spam protection built in. 

Do your homework before you choose: Check our security software buying guide and Ratings.

You should also make sure Windows' firewall is turned on to help block malware and keep malicious websites from grabbing data off your computer. And if you're still using Windows XP, upgrade as soon as you can. Microsoft is no longer supporting XP, and that means you won’t get security updates.

Some users need more protection than free software can offer. The pay suites that topped our Ratings provide, among other things, the tougher firewall that's necessary if you remotely access files on your computer when you’re away from home. Eset Smart Security and G Data InternetSecurity 2014 have very good firewalls. They also include extra features such as spam filters and more-robust parental controls.

Many of the packages, free and pay, were weak at fighting phishing scams. To better protect yourself, use the anti-phishing features in your browser. Those are on by default in the latest versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome.

All the software we tested is for Windows computers. Apple computers have been subjected to far fewer malware attacks, but Mac users should still add Mac-compatible security software to their systems to avoid passing along Windows malware.

—Donna Tapellini

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