As much as I listen to security-oriented podcasts (by the way, Steve Gibson’s Security Now is great!) and read various websites about protecting yourself while on the Internet, there’s always the lingering fear in the back of my mind that there’s software hidden somewhere on my machine and that someone’s checking out “my stuff”. I read a great article talking about some free and tested applications in the November 2006 edition of Maximum PC and I think everyone should consider using these. (That is, if you don’t have a solution already.)
Just for the record, I haven’t been paid or asked to do this. I just find it unfortunate that spyware and malware are taking over people’s machines and I hope that this might help to counter that trend a bit. But a few preliminary words of caution….
BEFORE ANY OF THESE RECCOMENDATIONS CAN BE OF ANY USE, PLEASE MAKE SURE THAT:
1. YOU HAVE WINDOWS XP SET TO DOWNLOAD UPDATES AUTOMATICALLY!! New security breaches are being discovered all the time. (If you are not sure whether or not you’ve been running Windows Update, here’s how you can run it: (Click Start Button — Go to “Programs” — Then click on “Windows Update”). You can also set it to run automatically from within the Control Panel under the “Security Center” applet. (My options are set to automatically download new updates, at which point I can select the option to install them.)
2. YOU ARE RUNNING WINDOWS XP SERVICE PACK 2. Service Pack 2 contains many significant updates to the Windows security structure (including a software firewall.)
3. YOU HAVE A NAT (Network Address Translation) ROUTER ATTACHED BETWEEN YOUR CONNECTION AND THE CABLE OR DSL ROUTER!! They’re cheap (about $30 – $60) and they allow you to split your Internet connection — usually among four other computers. But most importantly, they act as a built in firewall out of the box to provide you a degree of protection against machines that are sniffing for open computers. You can buy practically any brand of router — Linksys, Netgear, D-Link, Belkin — just make sure you have one. (I have the Linksys WRT54G — very popular and can be found for around $50 now.)
The above recommendations are the basics. Installing the software below without having done each of those three suggestions above is like putting air in your tires when your gas tank is empty.
Once you’ve done the above, here are some great additional protection solutions:
Practically everyone is familiar with Spybot Search and Destroy and Ad-Aware. And those apps have been my old standbys for quite awhile now and I still trust them. At the same time, A-Squared has been recommended by quite a few people and is said to have detected spyware that Ad Aware and Spybot may have missed.
The interface is certainly much more polished. It’s a free solution and in addition to spyware, it also looks for dialers, trojan horses and worms. And unlike some of the other solutions that I’ve tried with some of my customers, this is one that will actually clean the infection. (Another package that I won’t mention found all of this spyware…. but then they wanted us to pay to get rid of it. Pretty sneaky. I’m running A-Squared myself and it appears to run fine. A-Squared is from EMSI Software and can be found here.
NOTE: On the link, there are several versions. My recommendation is that you download the free version called “a-squared Free 2.0”. The difference between this and the “a-squared Anti-Malware 2.0” paid version is that the free version lacks the “ongoing support” types of features. So, for instance, you won’t have the “Background Guard” (that runs all the time and detects any spyware from sites that you might visit), “Automatic Updates” and “Scheduled Scans”. However, if you find that you really like A-Squared and want the ongoing protection, you can support them and pay for the full version. It’s $39.95 for a one year subscription. (Kinda pricey if you ask me.)