Although you can never eradicate the threat of malware when probing the web's dark recesses, slapping on as many layers of security as possible will make you less of a target. Here, we show you how to pile on the protection for free.
Layer 1. AV, antispyware and a firewall: Everybody should have AV, antispyware and a firewall product installed, and these tools should be included in even the most basic internet-security suite. If you don't want to spend any money, you could combine freebies such as Avast Antivirus, Spybot and ZoneAlarm's free firewall. But remember: free tools are typically less user-friendly than consumer products.
If you're running Windows 7 or Vista, you may not need a separate firewall. But if you're relying on the operating system to filter out net nasties, get hold of Windows 7 Firewall Control Free.
This free program offers fine-grained control over the firewall built into Windows 7 and Vista, particularly the way it blocks outbound connections.
Layer 2. A behavioural blocker: PC Tools' Threatfire is designed to complement an existing antivirus setup, using cloud-based data to work out what's nice... and what's not. It's constantly on the lookout for suspicious behaviour and is able to automatically block malware without a virus being announced or a patch issued.
Layer 3. A behavioural scanner: SurfRight Hitman Pro 3.5 is designed to work alongside the other tools here, catching files that make it through all other defences. The scanner reveals and removes active threats using behavioural analysis. It can be installed on your PC and used regularly, or kept on a memory stick to scan when something feels wrong.
Layer 4. Understudy antispyware: Ad-Aware does a great job of scanning your PC for threats, warning you about them and then deleting them. Even if you already have an antispyware product on your PC, it's a good idea to use this as well.
Layer 5. A sandbox: Sandboxie creates a virtual ‘sandbox' between websites and your system Registry, preventing rogue software from installing. This is ideal for any occasion when you are surfing unfamiliar websites. Even if something nasty gets on to your PC, you can limit its damage.
Layer 6. Shut those (back)doors: It's vital you keep your applications up to date so any exploitable holes or back doors are immediately patched and closed. Manually visiting websites to grab an update for every program you've installed is time-consuming. Instead let Secunia PSI scan your system, list all your applications and automatically check for security patches and apply any it finds.
Layer 7. Rewrite history: CCleaner is well known as a Registry cleaner, but it also helps protect your privacy. It removes traces of your internet history, including cookies, temporary internet files, browsing history and auto-complete form history. It also cleans Windows' Recent History list - worth doing if someone else is likely to use your PC.
Layer 8. Lock up your bank details: Safe Calculator is a neat utility that pretends to be the basic Windows calculator when you launch it. It's actually a safe that can take a single file and encrypt it, disappearing it into the app itself. You can run it from anywhere, even an external hard drive, so if you've got an important file that's for your eyes only, you can make it vanish with Safe Calculator.
Of course, technology isn't the only way to secure your system. The best security tool is your brain, and the weakest part of your defence is your own mistakes. Be sensible. Avoid dodgy websites (McAfee SiteAdvisor can help with this) and don't download pirated software or files. Research software online before installing it, and never click on an email link to a banking or shopping website. Indeed, avoid clicking links in emails altogether.
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