Is it Safe to Try New Freeware?

Dennis Faas's picture

How do you know which freeware is safe to download?

The fact is that trying out new, free software is sometimes risky. For example: some web sites will purposely mislead visitors by implying that their software is free -- but in fact, the "free" software comes bundled with added Spyware or adware.

One good rule of thumb is to stick to downloading software from trusted sources (such as infopackets and Clif Notes); but if you're like me and you're always trying out new software on a regular basis, you don't always have the luxury of trusting a source.

That's when I break out the big guns ;-)

Before Installation: Scan for Spyware and Make a Backup

Before installing a new freeware program, I do a spyware scan. At least this way I can determine if the Spyware came from the software I just installed or if I was already infected. I use both AdAware and SpyBot S&D because they're free.

I also run a HijackThis log and save the log file somewhere safe. Note, however: if you're new to HiJack this, please be aware that this program should be used with caution. Incorrect use can crash a PC or create a whole series of hard to fix problems.

After scanning the system, it's a good idea to set a restore point, make a backup of critical files. For the "ultimate backup", though, a disk image image is the best insurance you can get. Using this backup strategy, a computer can be restored to *exactly* the way it was when the backup was created, incase something goes wrong in the future (as with a Spyware attack, for example).

Additional Layers of Protection Against Malicious Software

Knowing that my PC is Spyware Free and fully backed is piece of mind. But to ensure that my PC remains reasonably protected and reactive incase of an infection or remote threat, I always have the following safety devices running:

  1. A firewall: either a NAT Router or a software firewall will do; two good free software firewalls are ZoneAlarm and Kerio. Many people recommend using a software firewall and hardware firewall in tandem. This let's you know when new programs try to "phone home" to access the web.
  2. Anti-Virus software: free versions.
  3. Intrusion Detection: such as WinPatrol. Note that some Anti-Spyware programs such as Spyware Doctor are capable of intrusion detection and monitor for keyloggers, remote access programs, Trojans, etc. Therefore, running separate "intrusion detection" software may only prove redundant (which can also slow down your computer).
  4. Anti-Spyware software: such as SpyCatcher Express or Spyware Doctor.

Monitoring the Software Installation

When it comes to installing software, I use Total Uninstall to monitor the installation. Total Uninstall allows me to uninstall the files and registry keys that any new software may put on my PC. It will work even if the program doesn't include it's own good uninstaller.

Removing Software from the System

I don't always keep the software that I download. So to be 100% sure that the software has been uninstalled from my system, I repeat a HiJackThis scan and compare it with the previous scan to see if anything unusual pops up. Then I might run the AdAware and Spybot once again just to be safe. For an added layer of protection, I might search for root kits with RootkitRevealer.

Using a Test Machine

If you download a lot of software on the Internet like me, using a second computer as a "test machine" is probably the best thing you can do. This test PC should also be backed up so that it can be restored to the same good configuration after testing. If you don't have a second PC, you can also try running a virtual machine (although, running software this way is significantly slower because it runs in a virtual environment).

I hope some of these ideas or freeware programs help you out if you ever decide to download something off the beaten tracks.

Till the next time ;-)

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