You wouldn't walk around with a wedge of cash hanging out of your back pocket. You wouldn't park your car and leave it with the keys in and windows open. And you surely wouldn't go mountain climbing in the snow wearing shorts and flip flops. Silly ideas? Perhaps, but going online without proper protection is just as silly.
Locking your car doesn't cost anything, nor does securing your cash safely in an inside pocket. If you've got the right clothes for mountaineering, there's no cost in choosing to put them on. Fortunately, the essential tools to secure your online activities can also be obtained without charge – and there are three things you absolutely must have operational before you venture into the wide world of the web.
We call them antivirus utilities, but they protect against so much more than viruses. Worms, Trojans, rootkits, botnets, scareware, adware, spyware – an antivirus should keep you safe from every type of malicious software. If the malware has already invaded, the antivirus should root it out. When the system is clean, it should fend off all attacks.
There a huge number of antivirus tools to choose from. Some of them are part of big security packages, which can be somewhat expensive, but there are plenty of free antivirus offerings which rival the strength of those major commercial players. We’d recommend you take a look at Avast or AVG, although those aren’t the only free options by any means. Some of the major names who rank at the top of all the antivirus tests, such as Bitdefender, also offer free tools alongside their flagship security suites – Bitdefender Free also has a very light system footprint which is always a bonus. There is simply no excuse for going online without a good antivirus utility to back you up.
Not all attacks come from malicious software. Some worms are totally network based, with no file component. Hackers may attempt to probe your system's security and take control. A firewall prevents this sort of attack by, among other things, putting the system's communications ports in "stealth mode" so they're not even visible to attackers.
Windows has a firewall built in, and in Windows 8, Windows 7 and Vista it's pretty darn good. If you're using Windows XP, or if you want the additional protection that comes when a firewall actively controls what programs can access the network, once again you can get powerful protection at no cost – check out our pick of the freebies, which is ZoneAlarm Free Firewall.
This one's a bit less obvious, but for most users it's a necessity. A modern citizen of the net visits dozens or hundreds of sites that require them to login with a username and password. Without a password manager the average user recycles the same three passwords over and over. That means a data thief who snags one password can use it to open many, many online accounts.
A password manager automatically captures your login credentials and then enters them automatically as needed. All you have to remember is the one very strong password that unlocks the password manager itself. And since you don't need to memorise the individual site passwords you can change your online banking account's password from "123456" to an automatically-generated and highly secure password like “r7YPeFKTZk2t.”
If you want recommendations for a good piece of software to take care of this side of business, check out our closer look at the best password managers.
There’s never any need to go online unprotected – arm up with these tools and stay safe.