Low or No-Cost Ways to Protect Your Computer Against Viruses and Data Loss

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Despite free and even hassle-free antivirus options, two recent surveys show that we’re still playing it unsafe online.

According to two separate computer security companies, Avira and GFI Software, we sacrifice safety because we’re fed up with our antivirus software – and its price. Of those surveyed:

  • 40 percent would let their antivirus software expire at the end of the initial subscription period rather than pay to renew it.
  • 35 percent do not know when their existing antivirus software will expire – or even whether it already has.
  • 25 percent have turned off their antivirus software because they felt like it was slowing down their computer.

“The scary take-away from this survey is that 25 percent of the respondents admitted to just turning off their security products because they feel that it hurt the performance of the machine,” says Sorin Mustaca, a security expert at Avira. “That’s not a good idea because such a practice leaves the computer totally exposed to even the simplest of viruses, allowing the bad guys to include it in a botnet used to distribute malware and phishing.”

Avira and GFI won’t tell you this because they sell software, but there are free alternatives. (See our story Antivirus Software is a Waste of Money.) So if you’re fed up with the price of antivirus software or the hassle of renewing it each year, try a free program like Microsoft’s Security Essentials and eliminate both problems. In fact, Security Essentials is scanning my computer as I write this, and it’s not slowed one bit.

Free antivirus software won’t solve all of your safety woes, though.

Another survey shows that although 83 percent of those surveyed understand the importance of backing up their hard drives (files, photos, music, etc):

  • 29 percent never back up their computer.
  • 25 percent back up only when they remember.
  • 15 percent back up on a regular basis (at least once per week).

“Consumer backup practices are still sloppy and many of us are putting months’ worth of data at risk,” says David Blackman, a general manager at backup solutions provider Acronis.

Do you know what would happen to your documents and photos if your computer crashed or your laptop were stolen? If not, your data is at risk too.

Fortunately, backup options can be as easy as some antivirus software alternatives and almost as cheap. There are two basic options:

1. External hard drive

Backing your computer up to an external hard drive is cheaper in the long-run because it’s a one-time expense. However, it’s also not as secure: If you store you external hard drive at home, a fire or thief could take it and your computer, leaving you without a copy of the lost data.

You could store it in an off-site safe deposit box, but that adds to the expense – as well as the inconvenience, because you have to ferry the external hard drive from your bank to your home and back every time you want to back up your data – that alone would keep would the vast majority of people from doing it.

If you use an external drive for backups, you should also keep the drive connected to your computer and use software that automatically backs it up at selected time intervals. Both Apple and Windows systems come with free backup software – there are also any number of free backup programs you can download at places like CNET. But if you don’t use them, they can’t help you.

2. Online backup service

Online backup services charge a monthly or yearly fee but, as noted above, offer greater security. As with software that automatically backs up to an external hard drive, online backup services are also automatic, which means that after you get set up, you never have to do a thing….except pay $5 – $10 a month for the service. In addition, some will charge you a hefty fee should you ever need to retrieve your backup – be sure and read the fine print.

Some of the most popular online backup services currently include Carbonite and Mozy, both of which were recently rated in a PCMag.com article that also reiterates the importance of backing up your data.

Which is better?

Both online and external hard drives have their own advantages and disadvantages, and which is better really depends on your situation. If your data is super-important, you have a reliable Internet connection, and you have the money, then there’s no doubt that online is safest. External hard drives, on the other hand, are so cheap that you can find a $10, key-chain flash drive with enough memory to back up at least your most important stuff. And you can use a free program that will do it for you.

Here’s a Suggestion…

If you’re not doing anything now, and don’t want to incur the expense of an online backup, here’s an idea: Buy a little flash drive, attach it to the key chain with your car keys, and always keep it plugged into your computer. (Use a backup program to keep it backing up whenever it’s plugged in.) Whenever you leave home, since it’s attached to your key chain, you’ve at least partially solved the fire/theft issue, because you always have your (encrypted) backup with you. And best of all, if you always put your flash drive back in your USB port as soon as you get home, you always know where your keys are!

But however you protect yourself against viruses and data loss, do it. Otherwise, you’ll simply end up doing what a lot of people do: wait until something horrible happens, then start doing it.

For more tips on playing it safe online, check out:

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