Antivirus programs don’t work like you think they do.

antivirus programs

Do you understand what you’re buying?

The software companies won’t always tell you this, but there are three big gaps in antivirus (AV) protection that you probably don’t want to know about – but you really should.

The reality is, antivirus software is just the icing on the cake when it comes to protecting yourself from nefarious types who want to steal your identity, your credit cards and the right to access your hard drive.

These include:

  1. human error: the reality is that most security breaches occur because of simple human error, not automated attacks such as malware, trojans, viruses and keyloggers. Fo example, no AV program can prevent you from sharing your password with someone on the phone, accessing sensitive online services over public WiFi or using easy-to-guess passwords.
  2. time lag: all AV programs are running behind the hackers. There’s always a delay between the creation of a new virus and a solution.
  3. algorithm differences: Antivirus software isn’t magic, it’s math. All AV programs use one of two different approaches to detecting threats like malware and trojans. And neither approach is foolproof.
    • list-based: using a central published list of known threats, the AV software scans your computer for them. Almost all AV programs that use list-based algorithms rely upon the same repository which is maintained by thousands of security specialists worldwide, open-source style. Most popular AV programs today started this way and remain mostly focused on this method. The biggest drawback of this approach is that new threats are coming online all the time, and the lists are always behind the curve.
    • pattern-based: a few other programs like Malwarebytes don’t use a list of known threats; instead, they look for tell-tale patterns in your computer’s memory to detect the presence of certain types of threats. This type of AV can pick up new threats not yet documented in the master list, because the new threats happen to function like other, known threats. The downside of this approach is that the patterns aren’t perfect, and some known threats will slip through the cracks.

Fix Yourself First

Before you go buy yourself an expensive antivirus license, use some common sense (and FREE) methods to protect yourself against the most important class of threats, human error.

Here are the best ways to protect yourself from malware, trojans, viruses and other automated attacks on your privacy:

  1. Use strong passwords. Select a unique, hard-to-guess password for every single program and web service that requires one. Use at least 8-10 characters. Mix up numbers, letters and special characters in every password. Capitalize at least two of your letters.
  2. Never use the same password twice. I’m serious. This may sound like a huge hassle, but if you use a free keyword passbook program like KeyPass (which is what I use), it becomes easy to store and find your passwords.
  3. Lock down your home WiFi network. And use a strong password for access.
  4. Never access personal accounts over public WiFi. It’s really easy these days for a nefarious geek to use a cheap $100 sniffer device to capture every character you transmit to your bank, insurance company, credit card payments, etc. This includes your phone and tablets, too. Turn the wifi off, and rely on cellular instead (it’s encrypted).
  5. Never click on an attachment or URL in an email from someone you don’t know. 
  6. Inspect your URLs before you click on them. A lot of people click on a link in an email from their bank without even thinking. WRONG. Phishing attacks prey on this easy mistake. Make sure you know where you’re going, before you click. To do that,  just hover over the link and look at the bottom left of your browser footer to see what the real destination is.

The Best Antivirus Programs You Can Buy

OK, after you’ve taken care of the common sense items above, here are the most effective antivirus programs you can use to further reduce the threat of an automated attack:

I recommend buying two packages: one list-based package plus one pattern-based package, to cover all of your bases.

If you follow all of these guidelines, your computers will remain threat-free for years. It’s been over ten years since I’ve had anything infect my computer.


About John F.

I'm a career web developer/consultant by day and a tech blogger by night. I just moved to Colorado Springs, CO where I work for a high-tech government contractor.

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