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Protecting Yourself Online (For Free!)
by Paul Burkholder
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved

The Civil War Being Waged Online

This article has nothing to do with Civil War, at least not the one fought between the Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865. Rather, this article is about the battle being waged today, online, between the virtuous good guys (us) who use email and the web to find and share information about our favorite historical subject and the seeming legions of bad guys (them) using the very same tools to get something from us - our money, our time, our identities, our buying habits, sometimes, just our goat.  Their weapons: computer viruses, email spam, spyware and adware.  Our weapons?  Well, now there's an interesting question.

There are a lot of very sophisticated, very effective and, at least as far as I'm concerned, very expensive software tools out there designed to protect you from the forces of evil lurking on the Internet. Most of these tools are excellent and many of us have dutifully purchased and installed them on our systems. However, some of us have never installed these tools and even more of us, after making the initial purchase, have stopped renewing the annual licenses required to keep these tools effective due to their high cost. Essentially, we've decided that none of those viral bullets zipping over our heads have our name on it.

Not necessarily rational, but understandable.

Legal Protection Rackets

To be fair to the folks who've decided to venture online defenseless, many were undoubtedly turned-off, not only by the high cost, but also by the protection-racket-feel of the whole virus protection software business. In Sopranos-like fashion, you pay some faceless company REAL money for invisible protection from invisible threats, for a period of time that looks suspiciously like it's going to be forever. And what happens if you don't pay? Well, you donít even want to think about that.

And let's be honest, every time you read about some new computer virus threat out there ready to erase the last 10 years of your digital life, don't you find yourself wondering if it's not Symantec or McAfee or some other virus-protection software company that's actually creating this stuff and releasing it into the wild just to feed the paranoia that supports their business model?

No, me either. Who'd ever think such crazy things?

The net result of all this is that, today, many of us surf the Internet with either no or outdated protection from the very real, very serious threats lying in wait for us. What's a concerned, rational cheapskate to do?

The good news is that there exists very sophisticated, very effective software tools that are also very FREE (legitimately free) that do as good a job as their high-priced brethren protecting you and your PC from all the evil in this world (well, at least evil of the digital variety). In the interest of making our shared online experience more fruitful and less aggravating, this article provides an overview of some of those free tools.


Disclaimers and Warnings:

  1. Before getting started, you need to know that I am neither a computer professional nor a computer expert.  What I am is just a history geek and active PC user like you who thought others might benefit from some tips I've picked-up over the years.  What I know about computers and how I came to know it actually followed a very similar path to how I came to know anything about the Civil War: 

    • I read a lot on the subject.

    • I hang around people much smarter on the topic than me.

    • I listen carefully to what they say.  

       

  2. There's nothing listed here that's new, experimental, especially wonk-y, or that requires a deep understanding of computers in order to install and use.  All the tools recommended below have been around for years and, over the years, have received many favorable reviews and recommendations from reputable web publications (like PC World and CNET).  To download any of these programs, click on the appropriate product name link in the article below or in the 'Free Protection' section in the upper right hand corner of this page.

  3. The business model being followed by many of the companies offering these products is to give away a very functional basic version of their product in order to lure you into their online showroom so that they can then try to sell you the 'professional' version.  By all means, buy the deluxe version if you think it has value, but the free versions are very good - good enough, at least, for my purposes and probably yours as well.

  4. There are many companies on the web trying to sell sound-alike versions of the free programs featured here.  Ad-Aware in particular seems to have spurred a whole cottage industry of sound-alike copycats.  Don't be deceived or misled.  Make sure you've navigated to the real deal before downloading anything.

  5. This article is not intended to be a complete list of useful, free software tools.  Are there other free tools out there that do the same thing as those listed here?  Undoubtedly.  (In fact, the website Get Safe Online provides a nice list of some of those other free tools not listed here.)  Do some of those programs do a better job than those listed here?  Possibly.  But, here's the thing: I haven't tried those programs.  With one exception, I actually use the programs listed here (a few for several years) and they work well.  Oh, and did I mention they're free?

  6. There are programs you can purchase from the aforementioned 'big names' of the software world that can do all the stuff listed here with one, comprehensive - and expensive - software 'suite'.  If your time is more valuable to you than money, or you're just not the pathetic, suspicious cheapskate that I am, then purchasing one of these programs might be the better bet.  What's important, though, is that you really need to do something to protect yourself and your PC.  Either buy one of these big, expensive packages or take the cheapskate steps outlined below.  Don't do nothing.


Virus Protection

I was a Norton's user for many years without incident.  I paid my 60 bucks annually for the right to update my 'virus database', the program did its thing, and all was right with the world.  Then one year, just a couple of months after renewing my Norton's subscription, I upgraded my PC's operating system from Windows ME to Windows XP (speaking of protection rackets).  

Of course, Norton's didn't work following the upgrade.  After weeks of getting the runaround back and forth between Norton's and Microsoft and feeling progressively more exposed on the web without a functioning virus protection program installed on my system, I finally decided to download a program called 'Avast' that my friend, Rick, from work had been touting to me for years.  "I don't know why you would spend $60 a year for what you can get for free," Rick would say to me.  I guess I doubted that a free program from a company I had never heard of could work as well as the very famous and very expensive Norton's.  

So, feeling desperate, I downloaded and installed Avast and now five years later, I'm still using it.  I never went back to Norton's to try to resolve my problem, never tried to get my 60 bucks back and never had any reason to regret relying on Avast.  I've not yet had a virus get past it (which is not a claim several of my friends who continue to use the 'name brand' virus protection programs can make).

The alternative program listed below, AVG, is the one program on this page I have not used myself.  It is however, the program my expert friend from work, who originally recommended Avast to me, uses.  (In fact, in the interest of giving credit where credit is due, it was Rick, my friend from work, who turned me on to most of the programs listed here.)  For reasons I forget, Rick shifted from Avast to AVG a couple of years ago and thinks it's great.  So, my comment on AVG (and the reason I include it here) is: if Rick says it's great, then it very likely IS great and you should probably consider using it.


SPAM Filtering

'Spam' describes all that annoying junk email that hits your inbox everyday - legitimate companies advertising themselves, illegitimate companies trying to sell you things you don't want (fake Rolex watches, pornography, pirated software, counterfeit pharmaceuticals), and criminals trying to trick you into divulging financial information (popularly called, 'phishing').  

I don't know about you, but a year ago, I had my doubts about all the complaining I was hearing about all the junk email everyone was getting.  I just didn't get that much myself and the hassle of deleting the little I DID get didn't seem like that big a deal. I was thinking that a little too much whining was going on about a not too serious problem.

And then something happened.  

Whether it was something I did, or something that changed out in the email ether or my email address finally landed in some spammer's database, I don't know.  But seemingly overnight, my inbox started overflowing with this junk and I went from quiet, smug self-satisfaction to, "Don't you think we need a Congressional sub-committee to look into this spam problem?!"

If you use a web-based email client (like AOL or Yahoo or Google's 'G-mail') and have no desire to bring your email down to your desktop (vs. leaving it on the AOL, Yahoo or Google servers) then skip onto the next section on spyware, because you are likely already getting pretty decent spam control and don't need the tools recommended here.

However, if, like me, you prefer bringing your email down to your desktop through a full-featured email client like Outlook or its stripped-down cousin, Outlook Express and your quiet smugness regarding spam has turned into righteous indignation, then here are some tools to help solve your problem and soothe your anger -

  • Spam-Stop - This is a free, online spam filtering service.  By signing-up with Spam-Stop, you are inserting them and their very effective filtering system between you and your email provider.  Over time, as their system 'learns' from the parameters you set and continually tweak, the filter results get progressively cleaner until you stop seeing spam altogether.  Spam-Stop effectively acts as a receptionist for your email.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I don't use Spam-Stop anymore.  Not because there was anything wrong with the service, but because the combination of the filtering I get from Yahoo Mail and Thunderbird - see below - works better for me.)

  • Mozilla Thunderbird - This is an email client software put out by the same people who produce the Firefox web browser.  If you are already using the most current version of Outlook and intend to keep buying the most current version into the future, then I don't know that switching to Thunderbird will dramatically improve your life.  However, if you're using an older version of Outlook to send and receive email or you're using Outlook Express, which, even if current, affords you less protection than Outlook does, you should consider using Thunderbird instead.  It comes with a pretty solid spam filter that only gets more effective over time as you instruct it on what is and isn't spam.  (It works very similarly to Spam-Stop, only it does it from your system.)  It looks and behaves like Outlook so you won't have a lot of difficulty making the transition and there are no obvious missing features.  The main difference between it and Outlook is that, with Thunderbird, you won't have to buy your upgrades, (remember, it's free!) so you won't be stuck down the road doing battle on the Internet with some outdated, 5-year old nag that you're unwilling to upgrade.

  • Yahoo Mail (beta) - This tip only applies if SBC/Ameritech is your Internet (and email) service provider.  SBC has partnered with Yahoo for many of the web services they provide.  If you sign up for Yahoo's new beta email service through your SBC home page, you can continue using the email client resident on your PC (as well as your existing SBC/Ameritech email address) and continue receiving your incoming mail on your PC, BUT have your incoming email scrubbed by Yahoo's very powerful spam filters.  This works very well.  One additional benefit of using this service is that you can access your SBC/Ameritech email online from any web-enabled PC (that is, you can access it while it still resides on the SBC/Yahoo server, meaning before you pull it down to your desktop.)

By the way, one final tip for reducing the amount of spam you get is not a program but a practice.  Set up a 'commercial' email account for yourself (apart from your main, personal email account) on either Yahoo or Google (it's free).  Use this new commercial email address you've created when you shop online, for your email subscriptions or any time you need to give an email address to a person or organization you don't entirely trust to treat it confidentially.  

Follow this practice, and the bulk of your junk email will route into this Yahoo or Google email account and apart from the email you're actually interested in getting.  Further, once the volume of junk mail flowing into your commercial account gets unmanageable, you can easily dump this account and open a new one without disrupting all of your personal email correspondence.  Neat.


Spyware & Adware Protection

These two terms, 'spyware' and 'adware' are often used interchangeably.  Both describe software scripts and small programs, some innocuous, some malicious, deposited on your hard drive by the programs and files you download and the web sites you visit.  Where viruses are typically mindless vandalism meant to corrupt your computer system and destroy electronic files, spyware and adware are anything but mindless.  Spyware tracks what you do and where you go online for marketing purposes, adware tries to sell you something (typically via pop-up ads while you're browsing).  In other words, there's commerce behind them; someone is trying to make money off your web browsing.  And, unfortunately, just about every commercial website you visit today tries to deposit some type spyware or adware on your system while you're there.  It's impossible to surf the web without being exposed to this stuff.

Now, aside from the privacy issues (which are significant), the problem with spyware and adware is that it bogs-down your system.  If you regularly surf the Internet and you've never run any kind of program to clean this junk off your PC then you very likely have hundreds of these little spyware programs on your hard drive all using system resources trying to phone home to report what you're doing online.  No one of the programs uses much system resource, but dozens (or even hundreds) of them trying to simultaneously do their thing can turn your perfectly fine, recent-vintage, powerhouse PC into a crawling dog.  You need to get rid of this stuff.  Don't be surprised if after running the programs recommended below, your system runs noticeably faster.

  • Ad-Aware (by Lavasoft) - The most widely-used, free anti-adware program.  It searches your hard drive for spyware and adware and deletes it.  Depending on the size of your hard drive and speed of your processor, it will take 10-20 minutes to fully cycle-through your hard drive.  It's easy to run and does a good job.  To be effective though, you need to run it regularly.  Once a week would not be out of line and certainly no less often than once a month would be recommended.  Be sure to click the button to update its definitions database before you run it each time.  (Do this even before you run it the first time after installation - your installation copy won't necessarily have the latest definitions.)

  • Spybot Search & Destroy - Just as good as Ad-Aware with all the same advisories as above.  Here's the key recommendation, however - download, install and use BOTH Ad-Aware AND Spybot S&D on a regular basis.  The two independently-developed programs take a different approach to their task and as a result, each catches things the other misses.  So, for the most complete, free cleansing of spyware and adware from your hard drive, run both programs regularly.

  • SpyWareBlaster - Where Ad-Aware and Spybot S&D are focused on cleaning out the junk already on your hard drive, SpyWareBlaster is all about blocking this stuff from getting on your hard drive in the first place.  Now, this program, once installed, runs quietly in the background like your anti-virus program, there's nothing you have to do to initiate it.  However, you DO need to periodically update its definitions database to get the fullest and most current protection this program has to offer.  Once a month seems about right.

  • Zone Alarm - This program monitors any attempts by programs already residing on your system to contact other 'entities' on the Internet.  Now, many of the programs on your PC are actively making these kinds of outgoing calls.  Windows and whatever virus-protection software you use are both automatically checking for updates every day or so.  Other programs you use are also likely checking with their creators for software updates on a regular basis.  This is a good thing.  However, some viruses and spyware that weasel their way onto your system will also try to call home with information from your system that you probably don't want to share.  Zone Alarm alerts you anytime one of these outgoing calls is made and asks you whether you want to permit it.  You can flag the outgoing call - 

    • 'Yes, always,' (like for the legitimate software updates you want, in which case Zone Alarm won't bother you about that callout again),

    • 'Yes, but this time only,' (in which case, Zone Alarm will give you a tap on the shoulder every time that program attempts an outgoing call),

    • 'No, not ever!' (in which case, Zone Alarm will block that program from ever calling out.)

The first time you turn-on Zone Alarm, you might be a little disturbed by how much of this kind of activity is going on in the background.  Don't freak out.  Just work through the process of identifying what's legitimate and constructive and be happy you won't need to worry about this anymore.

  • MS Internet Explorer 7 or Mozilla Firefox - You need to be using an up-to-date web browser.  The latest browsers have all kinds of effective tools built-into them for blocking the forces of evil from interrupting or undermining your browsing.  So if you're still using MS Internet Explorer 6 (or God forbid, something older) upgrade immediately to either one of these free browsers.  Both are good; which one you'd prefer likely has more to do with how you feel about Bill Gates than with the intrinsic qualities of either program.  By the way, whichever you choose, you'll really like the 'tabbed-browsing' design featured in both products.


Other Useful (and Free) Tools You Might Like

The products listed in this section do nothing to make you and your PC more secure online.  They do, however make your PC a slightly friendlier and more engaging partner to live with.

  • Sure Delete - Most of you know that when you delete a file from your computer, Windows deposits the file in your system's 'Recycle Bin' where it sits until you empty it.  What many of you don't know is that when you empty your Recycle Bin, those files are still not actually cleared from your hard drive.  Windows just marks the spot on your hard drive where that file sits as available, meaning that the system is now free to write new data over that spot.  However, if that spot on the hard drive is never overwritten with something new, that old, deleted (you thought) file is still sitting there available to be read by anyone with the right software tools to read it.  Now, so long as you keep that hard drive, that's not a problem.  But should you ever get rid of the hard drive or the PC with the hard drive still in it, you are vulnerable to those old files being read by whomever ends up with your PC or hard drive in their hands.  If those files are your old high school term papers, that's not such a big deal; but, if those files are 5-years' worth of Quicken records and the logins to all your online investment accounts, that's a little bit more of a deal.  Sure Delete fully erases all files on your hard drive. 


  • Roboform - A nice little utility that stores website logins and passwords in your browser and automatically loads them when you visit each corresponding site.  Not only is using Roboform convenient, but it affords you some additional protection from "key-loggers", a particularly nasty kind of spyware that tracks keystrokes for the purpose of stealing logins and other personal data.  The free version of Roboform allows you to store up to ten logins and passwords; you need to buy their 'full' version if you need more than that.  I've found I don't really need more than ten.

     

  • Yahoo Widgets - Widgets are sometimes useful, sometimes entertaining, sometimes baffling (in why anyone would want many of them) little programs that run as small open windows on your desktop.  There are calendar widgets, clock widgets, weather widgets, photo-album widgets, mp3-playing widgets - Yahoo offers over a thousand different widgets, all of them free.  I don't know for sure, but I believe widgets began in the Mac world and have since migrated to the Windows world.  Widgets were, in fact, one of the things Mac users pointed to when highlighting for their Windows friends just how superior Macs were to PCs.  So, download a couple of widgets onto your desktop (start with the 'Yahoo Widgets 4' pack) and irritate your Mac-user friends.


Free Protection

Virus Protection SPAM Filtering Spyware & Adware Protection Other Useful Tools

 


The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable