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Technology Today – September 2007
By Robert Sanborn

 The anti virus battles are getting more and more complicated. I have for years been a fan of Norton’s, now Symantec’s products, and the anti virus product has been one of the most reliable and solid performing programs. The past few years though has shaken my faith in the company because the software has gotten so large, so cumbersome, and it seems, every cracker is targeting it and when it really crashes, takes a lot of effort to clean up. So I have been listening to what other people have been using and I still get no warm fuzzy feelings about switching. What we used to know about viruses is changing with the prevalent problems being identity theft, Trojans, and the like. These are not malware that is interested in crashing your system as much as stealing information from you or using your computer to attack others. Last year at this time, I got my hands on other packages like Kaspersky, Trend Micro, CA, and some others and found them severely lacking.  The good news is that nearly all of them take care of the viruses that we used to know and worry about. The bad news is that the new malware attacking us is a problem that many of them still can’t quite really deal with. As a for instance, I recently ran into two computers that needed a new anti virus program and was having all sorts of problems getting a copy of Norton to install on them. So, I backed off, got the Norton removal tool to really clean it out, and then tried to install Panda’s Antivirus 2007 program. No go at all. Panda crashed differently on both machines and gave up errors that were not found on their web site. Worst yet, you can’t even talk to Panda unless you register the program and I am not about to register a program that won’t even install.  So what I ended up installing on both computers was the free version of Grisoft’s AVG anti virus program. It installs easily, scans easily, and works. Certainly it doesn’t have the added features to catch a lot of different malware but for quick virus detection, you can’t beat it. I still think though for better protection, you are going to need something more industrial strength and it could be that the two computers I mentioned above had enough problems that they probably should have been wiped clean but for simple use computes, people don’t like to take that approach. Things to think about as the new round of anti-malware programs and the problems they are to detect come out.

 On my test system, several months ago, I switched over to using Trend Micro’s http://us.trendmicro.com PC Cillin Internet Security and that seems to work very well. Unobtrusive, stays in the background, and keeps things secure. The updates seem to work very well and it quietly does its job. Unfortunately, a good friend tried to use it and had to give up because it really bogged down their system. Could be the fact that they had trouble with their Media Center edition of Windows XP and that just compounded things but for me, it just seems to work very well. 

Did you see the latest Consumer Reports? It had an interesting section on the top rated virus, firewall, and anti spam programs and Trend Micro’s PC Cillin took the winner in every one of them. I have been using their Internet Security 2007 package for several months and in fact, have switched over my main system and my notebook to it as well all running different versions of Windows.  While it appears to be very effective, I would not have given it my number one rating,   couple of reasons. First is that the menus and interfaces are difficult to understand. The more I use it the better it gets though, maybe because I am figuring out what they mean. The constant pop ups telling me about trivial tasks can be turned off. I also noticed that the scheduling that they use was all wrong and so you need to check that and change it. Finally, I thought the spam filtering they do was worthless but then again, I am using Microsoft Outlook for my email and it does a great job of pulling out the junk into the junkmail folder. http://www.trendmicro.com.

 Email Junk 

Outlook is my favorite email program but you have to have a copy of Microsoft Office to use it. It used to be pretty easy getting that because I would tell people to buy the “Student Teacher Edition” and that worked great with Office 2003 because it included Outlook. Unfortunately, the newest version of Microsoft Office 2007 Student Teacher Edition doesn’t have Outlook in it so you might be stuck using Outlook Express.  One of the benefits of Outlook was that you could use the “Preview Pane” to glance at messages and not worry that the spam message you clicked on accidentally was phoning home to the fact you were a live body at the other end. Worse yet, some emails contain web bugs, bogus links and other things that will cause all sorts of problems with viruses, Trojans, worms, and the like so the preview pane is definitely a no no in Outlook Express (OLX).  But if you have to use OLX, there are some things you can do to minimize the danger and still use it effectively. 

The first is to turn off the preview pane. Do that by clicking on /View/ /Layout/ and turn off “Show Preview Pane”. Note that you must do this while pointing to your inbox. The second thing to do is to make sure a bogus application cannot send out email using OLX. Do that by clicking on /Tools/ /Options/ select the “Security” tab, and check the box for “Warn me when other applications try to send mail as me.”

 If you are still worried about clicking on the wrong email, then you need to turn off HTML email and just view your mail in plain text. This disables all the bogus junk that might come in because you loose all the formatting and images that will come in and some email will be very difficult to figure out but give it a try. Click on /Tools/ /Options/ select the “Read” tab, and check the box for “Read all messages in plain text”.  

I also got an invitation to try out yet another spam filtering program from Agnitum, a Russian security company, called Spam Terrier.  It is a free program so might be worth taking a look at from them http://www.agnitum.com/products/spam-terrier/index.php.  I found it not to be as useful as I hoped it would and I suspect it is because I use Microsoft Outlook for my email and it really has some very good spam detection properties built in.  I think if I was using something else like Outlook Express, the results would have been far more worthwhile to me.   It creates its own junkmail boxes for things it catches and in my limited testing over about a month, if I got say 20 spam emails, maybe one would pop up in the SpamTerrier box and the rest into my regular junkmail box so for me, it really wasn’t catching anything at all.  If you don’t use Outlook, give it a try.  The company also makes a free firewall called Outpost that is also worth using if you don’t have one installed on your computer. 

 If you are running Windows XP (or still something lesser), then you must have a firewall besides the one that comes with Windows.  I have always used both Zone Labs Zone Alarm www.zonealarm.com on my test machine and Norton’s Internet Security www.symantec.com on my main machine but have given up on the Zone Labs.

 Short Takes

Rules of thumb for browsing the internet.  1. Never buy or download anything from a pop-up window unless you went looking for it.  2. If it is too good to be true, you will pay for it later. 3. The best place to download spyware is to either download a screensaver or music sharing program.

 The latest scan is from bogus emails telling you that you have an e-card from someone like “Dear Friend”, “Schoolmate”, “Silent Admirer”… get the drift.  Besides the usual Nigerian scams, I am seeing a bunch of email lottery winning notices. If life was only so easy.

 If you still are tempted to download one of the pop-up ads that tell you that it will clean up your computer, stop, take a breath, say no, and then take a look at this site. It is a very neat site that lists the current crop of bogus software. http://www.spywarewarrior.com/rogue_anti-spyware.htm. If the software you were thinking of getting is on that list, then you better pass on it.  Worse yet, it seems that some of these are now advertising on Google and Yahoo!  

If you do need help getting rid of spyware that might be on your system, then here are three things to try. My favorite right now is Sunbelt Software’s CounterSpy. http://www.sunbelt-software.com/, It comes with a free trial of the full package.  Number 2 would be Webroot’s Spysweeper, http://www.webroot.com. Only $30.  The third is Microsoft Windows Defender. Find it on their download site at www.microsoft.com/downloads.  

Another tool I use all the time is McAfee’s Site Advisor. Really handy when you do Google or Yahoo searches for something. http://www.siteadvisor.com/.  Take a look, it puts a flag beside each of your search results in Google that tell you whether the site is safe to browse to. 

As with any of these programs to protect your computer, unless you are using the free versions, I always recommend buying the box just incase you need to reinstall after a major computer crash. The good news is that hard drives are getting better. I now only use Seagate drives because they come with a 5 year warranty. 

Robert Sanborn is a technology analyst for PC Lifeline. You can reach him through the net at robert@pcll.com


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