PC security: Your essential software toolbox

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Mobile malware is getting lots of attention these days, but you can’t forget about your PC’s security—after all, you probably still use it to pay bills, shop online, and store sensitive documents. You should fully protect yourself to lessen the chance of cybercriminals infiltrating your computer and your online accounts, capturing your personal information, invading your privacy, and stealing your money and identity.

You need to guard against viruses, of course, but not all antivirus programs catch all threats, and some do better than others. You have to watch for many other types of threats, too: Malware invasions, hacking attacks, and cases of identify theft can originate from email, search engine results, websites, and social networks such as Facebook. They can also come in the form of links or advertisements for phishing and scam sites. But with some education on the topic, and the right tools, you can identify such scams and avoid falling victim.

If your children use your computer, you must also protect against inappropriate content such as violent games and adult sites, and you should monitor communication on social networks. Although the best approach is to keep a close eye on your kids while they use the computer, you can employ tools and services to filter content and monitor their Web usage when you’re not around.

Protecting your data from computer thieves and from people who tap in to your Wi-Fi signal is also important. Encrypting your computer is the only way to ensure that a thief cannot recover your files, passwords, and other data. And unless you password-protect and encrypt your wireless network, anyone nearby can connect to it, monitor your Internet usage, and possibly access your computers and files.

Here are the security threats you should watch for, and the tools you can use to protect against them.

Viruses and other malware

Viruses, spyware, and other types of malware are still prevalent, and cybercriminals are constantly finding new ways to infect computers. Although adult sites and illegal file-sharing sites have a reputation for harboring malware, you don’t have to browse the shady parts of the Web to become infected.

Installing a good antivirus or Internet security program should be your first step. However, not all are created equal. While no single antivirus product can protect against all of the millions of malware variants, some packages detect (and successfully remove) more threats than others do. For strong PC security, choose one of the top performers from our 2012 antivirus product-line reviews, such as Bitdefender Internet Security, Norton Internet Security, or G Data Internet Security. And in the future, be sure to check back for our more up-to-date reviews.

Bitdefender Internet Security 2012 had the highest rating in our malware detection, blocking, and removal tests.

Although an antivirus package is your primary weapon for fighting malware, you might wish to add other tools to your arsenal for extra security.

OpenDNS provides content filtering that blocks many malware-infested sites and phishing scams. You can enable this online service on select computers, or on your router to protect all connected devices. The free OpenDNS FamilyShield automatically blocks malware, phishing sites, adult content, and proxy sites that try to bypass the filtering, and it requires only a simple setting change on your PCs or router. The OpenDNS Home and Premium DNS offerings filter malware and phishing sites, and let you make a free or paid account to customize the filtering and other features.

The freeware utility Sandboxie lets you run your Web browser—or any other application—in a safe mode of sorts to protect against damage from downloaded viruses or suspicious programs that turn out to be malware. It does so by running the browser or selected program in a virtual environment (also known as a sandbox) that isolates the program from the rest of your system. Some antivirus or Internet security packages come with a sandbox feature, but if yours doesn’t (or if it doesn’t allow you to run programs in the sandbox manually), consider using Sandboxie when you’re browsing risky sites or downloading suspicious files.

Intended to complement the defenses you already have, Malwarebytes works alongside most regular anti­virus programs. It may catch malware that your regular antivirus utility misses, or remove threats that your standard package can’t. The free version does on-demand scans (you manually open the program and run a scan), whereas the paid version has real-time monitoring just as regular antivirus software does.

In addition to installing antimalware utilities, you can take other steps to help prevent attacks.

Enable automatic Windows Updates: This action ensures that Windows and other Microsoft products regularly receive the latest security patches. You can adjust Windows Update settings via the Control Panel. For best protection, choose to have Windows download and install updates automatically.

Through the Control Panel, you can enable automatic updates for Windows and other Microsoft products.

Keep non-Microsoft software up-to-date: Don’t forget to update your other software, too. Some popular programs and components (such as Web browsers, PDF readers, Adobe Flash, Java, and QuickTime) are bigger targets than others, and you should be especially mindful to keep them up-to-date. You can open the programs or their settings to check for updates, but most will automatically notify you when an update is available—and when you receive such notifications, don’t ignore or disable them.

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