With the world of malware constantly expanding, we must adjust our security practices all the time and get used to developing safe online behavior and habits.
I decided to write this article because there's a lot of misinformation out there about how to protect yourself online, and we can provide you all the important information in this complete guide.
This article about cyber security best practices is divided into two sections:
There's a lot of software dedicated to improving the security of our devices, but without exercising caution about basic activities (like clicking on links), we will never be safe.
I'll start this article with software recommendations and then move onto tips about habits which help you to protect yourself online.
So without further ado, let's begin with the main focus of our website:
Well, if you don't know much about the field of cyber security, your first instinct would be to Google it.
But how do you know which results to trust?
How do you know which antivirus reviews are reliable or written by experts?
In order to stay on track when you're choosing an antivirus, I recommend you approach the research in 2 different ways:
Let's talk a bit about each of those.
Antivirus software is subject to testing by independent and unbiased organizations (testing labs) that work with a set of rules and predefined standards.
The rules and standards are determined by the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organization (aka AMTSO), whose members are multiple testing labs, many security software companies, and other parties.
These members worked together to create a set of guidelines for correct and consistent testing of antivirus software that would benefit everybody, but mainly the customers who are looking for such test scores when they're choosing an antivirus.
These, and other similar organizations, test a variety of products that are released by antivirus software companies several times every year. They test the parameters in different categories (PC, Mac, mobile devices, etc.) and on different operating systems, and then they publish the results.
However, there's still a problem:
We found that these results are not a great resource for the average user because one has to look at multiple tests in order to evaluate properly the software one is researching.
Each test uses a different set of tested malware, which evaluates a varying group of security products and checks them on different operating system versions.
Furthermore, each lab offers a different format of results and tests slightly differently, while still according to the AMTSO guidelines.
We solved this problem:
Our antivirus test results calculator aggregates 10,000+ lab test scores from multiple AMTSO certified labs over 8 years and provides test scores for 100+ antivirus vendors.
For advanced users who are looking to dig through the original tests, we provide a link to each test on the lab's site. (See instructions in the following images.)
Here's a quick overview of how to use this tool:
You can use it to discover which antivirus software performed the best overall according to the tests conducted by several testing labs over the duration of a significant period of time. The tool calculates 3 main categories that almost all independent labs test namely: protection, performance, and false alerts:
This is at the heart of every antivirus engine.
Protection tests measure how well an antivirus protects its user from malware, both known threats and new (zero-day) threats.
These tests vary from lab to lab, but the range of questions these tests answer are:
The protection test score represents the collection of answers to these questions in one average number.
This type of test checks the impact of an active antivirus software on your system performance.
Your computer's CPU, RAM, and HDD (or SSD) are your computing resources. They have a limited capacity; every active process, including the real-time protection your antivirus software provides, takes up a part of this capacity.
A real-time antivirus scans programs and apps that you activate before allowing them to run so as to delay their activation.
Some antivirus engines scan your system on boot up (when you turn on your computer), which delays the load time of your operating system.
Performance (or performance impact) tests evaluate the additional strain on your system resources which are caused solely by the antivirus software.
These tests check part of or all of the added delays and additional system resource usage that I mentioned above.
The score represents how efficient the tested antivirus software is in its usage of system resources and impact on user experience.
It's worth noting that modern computers are so powerful that despite a variance in test scores, you won't feel a significant system performance impact regardless of the antivirus you choose.
Sometimes, a user might try to execute a legitimate software that the antivirus would detect as malware.
When the software is truly legitimate, it's called a false positive or a false alert.
False alert tests measure the accuracy of an antivirus software's malware detection engine by testing it against a wide range of popular and legitimate software.
A high score represents an antivirus which doesn't "falsely accuse" legitimate software of being malware.
Here's one of the top performers in all three types of tests that rightfully earned our appreciation:
Would you install an antivirus developed by a Chinese company?
If your answer is yes, you need to know a few things.
I don't have anything against China, but when I read stories like this one, it makes me wonder about the ethics of security companies based in China.
Here's an example which isn't related to the antivirus world, but discusses a Chinese company which also develops antivirus software.
Considering the geo-politics in play and with China & the western world being on the opposite sides of an ongoing cyber-war, I keep reading stories which involve Chinese-developed apps being discovered as malware.
I'm not aware of companies based in other countries who are so consistent in knowingly publishing malware under the guise of free legitimate software. Sure, there are hackers all over the world, but companies which engage in such activities?
We try to be as transparent as possible, so we do not exclude any company from the test results tool I mentioned above. Be vigilant!
When you see an antivirus software developed by a Chinese company, take their test results with a grain of salt.
I'd like to discuss a few features you should look for in your antivirus software.
Ransomware is a type of malware which encrypts files on your computer rendering them unreadable and presents the user with a demand for ransom.
While ransomware only started making headlines in the past few years, it's actually a fairly old type of malware. The first ransomware was developed in 1989, but it was nowhere near as successful as it is nowadays mostly thanks to PCs becoming so popular, international payments becoming very easy to send, and the introduction of virtual currency.
With ransomware, prevention is the way to go because it evolves so quickly that organizations (like this one) dedicated to fighting ransomware only succeed in publishing solutions for a very small segment of this annoying malware family.
Aside from implementing several layers of backup (which I'll discuss later in this article), you need an antivirus that knows how to identify an executed ransomware, stop the bugger in its tracks, and remove every trace of it.
A quick definition:
Phishing is an attempt to get personal or financial details out of the user under the guise of a legitimate request.
For example, a fake Paypal login webpage would try to get you to log in to your Paypal account by appearing as similar as possible to the real Paypal login page.
To obtain your Paypal login details, username, and password with the sole purpose of getting into your Paypal account and simply stealing money.
Phishing scams are first performed by social engineering.
For example, you receive an email saying you have an urgent problem with your Paypal account, online bank account, tax details, etc., and that you have to "click this link" to fix the issue.
You're so nervous because of this that you don't check to see if the message was sent from an email address which actually belongs to the organization who would contact you about such matters (i.e. Paypal itself, your real bank, or the relevant government agency).
So you click the link and reach a form you have to fill out.
A variety of different phishing pages would try to get different details ranging from account login details to your social security number and other personal information.
If you're paying attention you'll see that the page's address has nothing to do with the organization it claims to represent.
Anti-phishing features in antivirus software identify a phishing page by simply comparing it to known phishing pages. These features are an important part of protecting yourself online.
In fact, modern web browsers contain built-in phishing protection, but the most popular security software must contain this feature as well. It would outperform the browser's phishing protection more often than not.
New phishing pages appear all the time, and they're constantly reported by a variety of users, organizations, and automated tools. They are also added to multiple databases which exist in order to help fight phishing scams.
Protect yourself online by making sure that the antivirus of your choice contains these features.
Exploits are security loopholes in operating systems and other software which allow hackers to cause damage by breaching your computer's defense system.
Anti-exploit features use two methods:
The first one is a vulnerability checker which should alert users when their software is outdated and needs an update from the vendor.
The second one involves monitoring your active software (running processes) by paying attention to known exploits and identifying infiltration attempts. A good example of an antivirus software which uses this approach is Malwarebytes.
Anti-exploit features are important because we use a variety of different programs developed by different companies, not all of who secure their software very well.
A good example of this is Adobe Flash, which a lot of websites were using until recently. It always seemed to have important security updates available due to the many security issues it had.
In fact in 2016, Google started blocking Flash players in the newer versions (53 and onward) of its browser, Google Chrome.
Google did this to incentivize website owners to switch to other more secure technologies like HTML5, which would speed up websites' load time and wouldn't expose the user to risks as much as Flash did.
The sandbox feature is important, but it's more relevant to advanced users as you have to actively use it - it's not running by itself.
A sandbox allows the user to execute suspicious files (or any file, really) in a protected virtual environment which later disappears and doesn't affect your actual system, no matter what happens there.
If you suspect that a software you downloaded contains malware, you can try to run it in the sandbox and see if anything strange happens.
Now that we're clear on which features you should look for when choosing an antivirus, you need to consider the most important question:
What do you need?
Different antivirus companies have different products and bundles, ranging from a basic real-time antivirus engine to advanced internet security suites, the latter of which contains additional tools and perks you might find useful.
Some suites offer unique features, some provide multiple licenses, some are compatible with several operating systems, and some give you access to everything I mentioned.
Once again, it's a question of what you need.
So here are a few things to consider when purchasing antivirus software:
If you have more ideas for this list, shoot us an email and I'll consider them.
Before you continue reading, it's important to mention that online communities sometimes live inside bubbles.
Accept online advice from strangers cautiously! Some people are indeed experts, but some are paid employees of the companies they recommend, some are partners whom get paid to promote software and do so irresponsibly, and some are simply kids who think they know everything.
With that said, here are a few online communities you could definitely consult when choosing an antivirus software:
You could also try Quora, but keep in mind that it's full of spammers promoting Chinese and Indian software as "the best" when they're actually not even close to being the best. What's more, it's plagued by questions and answers which advertise fake tech support services, and the entire thing is moderated very loosely by Quora themselves as they only act on user reports.
Yahoo Answers is also not recommended since it's very easy to abuse their system.
Your intuition might take you in the direction of looking for antivirus reviews by a company's existing customers, but tread lightly:
Satisfied customers don't leave as much feedback as unsatisfied ones.
For this reason, you might find that a lot of companies have a negative image online that is not really indicative of them.
Remember this famous quote by John Lydgate:
“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”
If you see that a company is actively and sensibly answering questions, reviews, and feedback on their own social media accounts and on third party review sites, you can be calm: this company is doing its best to provide quality customer service.
Now, seeing that I mentioned third party review sites, let's talk about them.
Of course, I'm referring to review aggregators like TrustPilot and SiteJabber.
These sites are open to easy manipulation because anyone can register and leave feedback. Only on some of these sites the user leaving the feedback is required to provide a proof of their purchase, and even then it's not always checked.
So refrain from treating review aggregators seriously; they're full of fake reviews!
I'll say it straight off the bat:
Anti-malware and antivirus mean the same thing.
After all, an antivirus (at least a good antivirus) detects different kinds of malware.
While it's true for Windows, viruses are not the most common threat nowadays on all operating systems. For Android it's actually Trojans, and for MacOS it's almost entirely PUAs (Potentially Unwanted Applications). (Source)
But I digress.
It came to be that "anti-malware" refers to a subset of malware removal tools, while "antivirus" refers to traditional real-time protection software.
Is it unnecessarily confusing?
Yes, but we can't do anything about it, so let's just accept the semantics and move forward.
This section discusses anti-malware scanners which tend to have a free version and a premium version and are used alongside the active protection that an antivirus software provides.
Before I dive into the details of specific anti-malware software providers, I'd like to explain something:
Antivirus engines use 2 main approaches in identifying malware:
Signature based identification is the classic way and every traditional antivirus uses it.
The way it works is the company maintains a huge database of malware signatures which could be hashed files (files represented by a unique combination of symbols), or bits of code that a specific malware contains.
During a signature-based scan, every file is compared to the company's database, and if there's a match, it means the antivirus suspects that a specific file on your computer contains (or is) malware.
Behavioral identification examines executed applications and the areas of your system these applications attempt to access after execution.
If your system is already infected, a behavioral engine will search for suspicious processes and other traces which malware leaves around after execution, in order to identify whether your machine is infected.
Nowadays there are new marketing buzzwords for a behavioral antivirus engine:
When you see this sort of terminology you should know that it's referring to a clever behavioral scanner.
We will publish an article about next-gen antivirus software in the near future which will tell you everything you need to know, but you can expect to see this word used (and abused, on occasion) by more and more antivirus vendors in the near future.
Anyway, back to my point:
Why do you need an anti-malware scanner?
Well, seeing that no antivirus is 100% accurate, it's always good to get another opinion by an additional scanner, but there's a catch:
You can't have 2 active (real-time) antivirus programs installed at the same time.
I mean, you could, but it's neither recommended nor supported.
You will experience conflicts, both programs might attempt to disable each other, and more issues may arise.
This is why I recommend installing a free anti-malware scanner which wouldn't cause conflicts and would provide peace of mind for those times when you think you might've been infected.
My free scanner of choice?
Its signature based engine isn't great, but it gets a lot of love from a lot of online communities, and there are a lot of success stories of it removing malware that traditional antivirus haven't yet managed to do.
I do have one beef with Malwarebytes - its premium version (the recent 3.0 release) now replaces an antivirus and can no longer provide an additional layer of real-time protection.
Malwarebytes has tried to re-position their product "marketing-wise" and enter the antivirus market; thus competing in a much more aggressive marketplace without the signature-based success that its competitors enjoy. (Sorry for the marketing rant)
So cutting to the chase:
For a real-time anti-malware engine which doesn't conflict with your antivirus, check out Zemana AntiMalware.
Though we haven't had the chance to review it yet, I do know that it's highly regarded in the world of cyber security and would provide a solid second layer of defense.
A quick definition if you need it:
A firewall allows you to monitor and control inbound and outbound network traffic.
For example, if you block your browser's access to the internet, you won't be able to browse.
Windows has its own firewall but some antivirus products offer their own firewall solution to replace the one Windows offers.
To be clear, the Windows firewall is good enough, but it's difficult to configure and customize.
The average user doesn't really need to do anything because it's already configured by Microsoft, but it's only configured to block inbound traffic, and not outbound traffic.
I won't get into too many details, but one reason to block and/or monitor outbound traffic for some apps would be to prevent potential malware from downloading its main payload from the hacker's server.
The benefit of a third-party firewall, like those that antivirus vendors and other security firms provide, is that it's much more user-friendly and easier to configure if you need that. It's also uses anonymous statistics collected from other subscribers to determine if an application was manually approved by a significant group of users in the past.
So once again, it's not a must-have in an antivirus product, but if it's part of the package and you know what you're doing, it could come in handy for you and ease the work of configuring the Windows firewall.
Kaspersky, for example, provides a pretty good firewall management interface and since its antivirus engine is really top notch, you wouldn't be wrong in trying this product out:
If you recall, I mentioned ransomware and how prevalent it's become in the first section of this article ("how to choose an antivirus").
You can avoid paying a ransom and mitigate the damage by implementing a strong prevention strategy.
Sometimes even if you pay, you won't get the key to decrypt your encrypted files.
The hackers got their money, and now you're at their mercy.
Aside from healthy and secure online habits that can significantly reduce the risk of infection, you can protect yourself online from hackers by simply keeping a backup of all the important data that you keep on your computer, or on any other device for that matter.
I'll discuss secure online habits further down in this article.
For now, let's focus on backup.
I recommend that you back up your most important data:
Basically, you should back up anything you'd be sorry you lost in case of a ransomware infection, or even a hard drive malfunction.
There's no need to back up installed software, for example, because you can always re-install it.
Yes, it's a pain, but storage space is only free up to a certain point.
I recommend that you create at least 2 separate backups using different methods.
The first method is to back up your stuff to a cloud service - there are plenty of free ones (limited storage) which allow you several GigaBytes of storage; you should take advantage of at least one of them:
The second method is to back up to a physical drive which you must keep separate from your computer and home network.
For example, a small flash drive is great if you don't need too much storage space, but if you need more then there are plenty of storage solutions available:
Last but not least is your antivirus software.
Some internet security products contain a free automated backup feature with a generous allocation of storage.
If you purchase a license to such a product, be sure to take advantage of the free backup feature.
One such product is offered by Symantec's Norton Security:
If you're still not familiar with the wonderful world of ad blockers, you're in for a treat!
Did you know you can block most of the ads you see online?
Yes, even video ads on Youtube!
How does that relate to security?
Well, in one word: Malvertising.
Malvertising refers to ads that have a malicious intent, for example: to send you to a phishing page, an infected website, to scare you into calling a fake tech support service, and so on.
When you block ads with a strong ad blocker, not only do you enjoy a cleaner browsing experience, but you also practically eliminate the risk of being exposed to malvertising campaigns.
So go get one now through the links above, I'll wait.
PUPs, PUAs & PSU are basically the same thing, and they are not quite malware; they're closer to junkware - software which might overwhelm your machine and decrease your user experience without any real benefit.
This type of software has a purpose:
Either it will expose you to ads, or it will use your system's resources for its own purposes.
If you ever installed a free software, you might've seen a "recommended" option to install this or that free program, browser toolbar, or add-on.
Does the "ASK toolbar" ring a bell?
This is known as bundled software, a subset of the junkware I defined above.
Here's how it works:
You want to install Software A by Company A, but Company B has an agreement with Company A.
Company B will pay a certain amount to Company A for every user who installs Software B during the installation of Software A.
After all, Company A doesn't charge you for Software A, but they need to get paid somehow and bundling Software B into Software A is one of the methods in the free software industry.
The less sneaky installers give you an option to opt-in, but in most cases you're opted in by default and have to opt-out by checking or uncheking an option during the install process.
In order to avoid mistakenly installing junkware of this sort, you can use Unchecky.
It's a free tool that automatically opts you out of unwanted bundled software, which in turn prevents potential problems in the future.
You need a password for everything and anything nowadays.
It's becoming difficult to manage when cyber security best practices dictate that you must have a different password for every platform and every service.
Password managers solve this very problem!
A password manager is a small and non-intrusive program which stores and generates random passwords based on the rules you define.
All the passwords you store are kept behind a password, and if you wish, also additional security layers like an encrypted key file.
Do you need one that's at least 12 characters long with numbers and capital letters?
Here's an example of how a password generator works:
Once you generate your password, it's stored by the password manager and you can access it at any time.
You can generate and store as many passwords as you like, keep them organized in folders, and even create separate files for different purposes. (Home, work, etc.)
And it doesn't only store passwords, obviously - it stores your username, login page URL and any other comment you'd like to add to each listing you create.
Here's how the password file looks on my favorite password manager:
If you're looking for a stand-alone password management solution, I recommend one of two programs:
KeePass is a password manager which I really enjoy myself, both on my PC and on my Android device. It's what you can see in the screenshots above.
You can download the android version (KeePassDroid) on Google Play for free. It uses the same files, so you can copy a file from your PC to your Android device and access all the passwords that you created on your PC from your mobile.
LastPass is a program which I've repeatedly seen mentioned online, and even though I didn't try it myself, I have never read a bad word about it.
It's free as well, so I cautiously recommend it as an alternative solution if you don't like KeePass.
If you're buying an internet security product which offers a free password manager, there's no reason not to give it a shot.
For example, the Bitdefender Wallet is a very nice password manager, and you will enjoy it for free if you purchase this internet security suite:
Last but not least:
I'd like to go over a few basic guidelines that could save you from unpleasantness in the future.
I like to call it "online discipline," but the more conceited geeky communities call these guidelines "common sense."
So, what are the cyber security best practices for the average user?
Here's a quick list for you:
Don't just aimlessly click on every link or ad you see.
If you receive a link via social media or email from somebody you don't know, think twice before clicking it.
Even if you receive a strange and unexpected message from somebody you do know, check with them if they intended to send it.
Email accounts and social media accounts get hacked for the purpose of sending out spam, which in many cases might contain malware or links to phishing pages.
Which brings me to my next point:
The spam filter on your mailbox of choice isn't perfect, so you should pay close attention to the files you download, and more importantly, to the files you open or execute.
Even if you think the attachment is a harmless excel file, it could still contain scripts which might do serious damage if you allow them to run by mistake.
When one of your installed programs notifies you that an update is available, don't postpone it.
If you recall, I discussed protection from Exploits earlier in this article.
Software which isn't up to date contains known security issues which the updates resolve.
Windows, for example, constantly releases security updates. Windows 10 doesn't allow you to postpone them for too long, but other software does.
So if your browser or any other software that you use regularly tells you that you should update to the next version, don't wait; update!
You should also make sure that your firmware is up to date on all of your network-connected devices such as your router, printer, WiFi security cameras, etc.
Secure the access to each device with a different password (not the default one) and store it in your favorite password manager.
There's this very neat XKCD comic which discusses the modern password requirements and habits:
Seeing that it was published in 2011, new dictionary-based algorithms were developed to guess word-based passwords faster and more accurately.
However, at least a part of the conclusion remains:
A longer password is more secure, even if not always easier to remember.
As I explained when I discussed the password management tools, password managers allow you to create very long passwords, which is great as long as it's acceptable by the service for which you create that password.
Not much to it; protect it with a good password which you remember well, and you should be good.
If you're looking to secure it even further, you can hide your network from the public and access it by typing its name instead of picking from the list of available networks.
Your WiFi router comes pre-configured with a default password.
Change that password in your router's settings.
We don't approve of piracy, and we don't encourage it.
With that said, it's clear that many users still use torrent sites for legitimate purposes, so it's important to mention the following:
Always pay attention to the member who supplied the torrent file and make sure that it's a verified member in that community.
Torrent sites usually have an indication of this, and if you're using a torrent site, you can recognize the verified users by a flair which indicates that you can trust their torrents.
Still, it's always good to scan the file you downloaded with your antivirus and/or anti-malware software of choice.
Two-step authentication is becoming more and more popular: currently used by the largest companies like Google and Microsoft, as well as the most popular services such as Facebook.
The most common way is to send you a text message with a disposable pin code to enter after you entered your login details.
Online financial services such as online banking platforms also started implementing it by providing a small physical pin code generator you can keep on your key chain.
The idea behind it is to make sure that whoever is logging in to your account is in fact you, and not somebody who obtained your password in some clever way.
I recommend you use it whenever possible.
Your phone is always with you, and while it might get a bit annoying when you're in a rush, it could save you from losing access to your various accounts.
If you think that the advice I provide here is useful and/or interesting, show your family and friends that you care:
Share this article with anyone who might find it useful, and help them stay protected online.
So, to recap!
In order to protect yourself online you will need to improve both your defenses and your habits:
This sums up my article about protecting yourself online.
I hope you found this resource useful, and that you will act on at least some of my tips.
You can begin by choosing an antivirus.
If you have any feedback, I would love to get your comments via our contact form!
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