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What You Should Learn From “The Day The Earth Was Hacked”

Europol, the intelligence agency of the European Union, called it a “cyberattack of an unprecedented level.”

Starting early Friday, May 12, a massive ransomware infection called WannaCry quickly spread to hundreds of thousands of computers in over 150 countries.

It crippled entire hospitals, car manufacturers, telecom companies, and even affected U.S.-based FedEx, demanding a $300 ransom to be paid in Bitcoin for the data files it held hostage.

Failure To Do This Leaves The Door Wide Open

Why did this ransomware inflict so much damage when it could have been easily prevented?

First, companies and individuals failed to keep their computers updated with the latest security patches.

Microsoft discovered the vulnerability exploited by WannaCry and issued a patch back in March. Computers with the update installed were not affected.

Yet, an enormous number of PCs obviously weren’t updated, providing an open door for the cyberattack.

In my experience, most small business and home users neglect to regularly install the ever-important Windows Updates. They either don’t know how or never think about installing them.

Worse yet, many refuse to allow a knowledgeable IT provider to take care of these tasks for them at a minimal cost.

The Antivirus Myth

Second, most of the affected PCs used ineffective or no antivirus protection.

The first question I always get asked after a client’s machine becomes infected is, “Well, I have [insert name of a popular antivirus program, usually a free one]. Shouldn’t it have prevented this?”

Truth is most antivirus programs sold today use ancient, 25-year-old technology. They simply don’t protect against how today’s threats attack and infect computers.

In the previous column two weeks ago, my Director of Service Operations, Christian Hinojosa, warned about the inadequacies of free antivirus programs – like AVG, Avast, and Avira. These are some of the worst protection when it comes to ransomware like WannaCry.

But even many of the paid antivirus programs fail to block deadly viruses and malware.

Only a slim handful of paid antivirus software effectively blocks many of the behavior-based, zero-day threats regularly attacking your computer. And they’re not ones you find on the shelf at Walmart or Best Buy.

The Worst Is Yet To Come

While WannaCry’s reach rapidly extended throughout the entire civilized world, it only lasted a few days before it was stopped in its tracks.

The purchase of a simple $11 domain name by an observant security expert broke the criminals’ code.

Those thieves know exactly what they did wrong. You can bet they’re already working on a version 2.0 that won’t be stopped as easily.

At Home or At Work – You’re At Risk

Are you a home user who only checks email and browses Facebook?

Are you a small business owner with one or more computers critical to running your daily operations?

Do you work in an office, warehouse, or other organization with computers?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, you have computers at risk for the next big attack.

It would be wise to make sure you’re well-protected before disaster strikes. Keep in mind these six tips:

1. Regularly update all your computers with the latest patches.
2. Install antivirus software designed for today’s threats.
3. Implement edge protection to build a wall around your home or business network that will keep unwanted hackers out.
4. Provide on-going training to family members and/or employees that helps them identify phishing email, scams, fake websites, and other malicious attempts to infect your PC or steal personal information.
5. Maintain regular, automated, OFF-SITE backups of all important documents and data on your computer.
6. Consult with a knowledgeable IT professional to provide these five solutions for you. If they can’t, find an expert who is educated and able to offer complete security. It really is cheaper than the alternative.

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The Real Costs of “Free” Antivirus Protection

When Alan brought his computer to us because he couldn’t access any websites, he never suspected the culprit would be this one seemingly harmless thing.

Our technicians put his computer through rigorous troubleshooting, but were unable to immediately find the cause of his problem. After more in-depth testing, we discovered one small setting preventing Alan from browsing the Internet.

Alan had been using AVG Free Antivirus – one of the most popular free antivirus programs. However, his troubles began when he uninstalled AVG prior to having us install our Advanced Managed Antivirus protection. Even after being “removed,” AVG was still trying to commandeer his Internet connectivity. His problem was solved by removing the remaining hidden AVG drivers.

Little things like these are what make free antivirus solutions less than optimal.

While the prospect of free protection from malicious viruses and malware may seem appealing at first, the cost further down the road is far less attractive and significantly more.

Here are three reasons why you should think carefully about risking your PCs security with a free antivirus program:

Pathetic Protection

What is the point of having an antivirus program installed on your computer if it’s not able to protect you from the latest viruses and malware attacks?

Paid antivirus programs have more frequently updated features and are always kept up-to-date with the latest virus definitions. Most free solutions, however, offer only minimal protection.

In a study conducted by PC World, free antivirus programs allowed an unsettling 15.2% of malware slip through their detection.

Real-time protection is also rarely an option when you are not paying for your antivirus software. You may be protected from common viruses attacking your computer, but many new, more highly sophisticated viruses could easily get away with infecting your PC and stealing your personal information before being detected.

Annoying Advertisements

The last thing you want when trying to rid your computer of malware is intrusive and annoying adware.
Many antivirus companies partner with advertisers so they can make money off their free products. Free antivirus utilities commonly hijack your browser, homepage, toolbars, and search engine. This generates more revenue for them and more trouble for you.

Free antivirus solutions rarely detect or stop unwanted adware. These programs often seem helpful and legitimate – advertised as being used for couponing, finding lyrics to your favorite songs, or even checking the weather.

But these programs gain an alarmingly elevated level of access to your computer. They leave your computer extremely vulnerable to malicious attacks.

Adware such as this results in even more pop-ups, advertisements, and even spam emails. Stuff you’re trying to prevent in the first place!

Something else to think about …

Why do all the free antivirus programs bombard you with ads to upgrade to their paid version? Even they know the paid version is more effective.

Unwanted Utilities

One of the more annoying and potentially dangerous aspects of free antivirus programs are the extra “features” that come bundled with them.

Free antivirus solutions are often bundled with a plethora of other largely useless and problem-causing utilities.

Some contain a bundled proprietary search engine or homepage. But these are a mere rebranding of Ask, Yahoo, or Bing search engines.

If you wish to use one of these search engines, you’re better off going to the legitimate website.

Some antivirus programs also attempt to redirect your web browsing through their servers promoting added protection. Ironically, this often results in security holes due to poor product development, leaving you even more vulnerable to outside attacks than before.

Buyer Beware

While a “free” virus program may be enticing to you, they are often littered with too many downfalls to be a truly good value.

Computer professionals who recommend you use a free antivirus program are doing you a major disservice. They often make more money off cleaning the virus infections and fixing other problems caused by the free programs than they do by offering you a highly effective paid antivirus software.

So what should you do?

Paid antivirus protection costs far less than you would expect. Premium antivirus software is the best option for your computer’s security and for your pocketbook.

If you absolutely cannot or simply refuse to pay for your antivirus protection, you should be extremely confident in your ability to safely navigate the web and steer clear of any and every suspicious website, email, or pop-up.