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Updated: December 19, 2012 7:16 AM

Security software

Failing to protect your computer from online threats can shorten your machine's life and lead to the theft or corruption of data, including sensitive personal information. But you don't have to spend a lot on security software. We found that free programs are fine for most people.


Getting started

New PCs almost invariably come with a free trial version of a subscription security suite from a company such as Symantec or McAfee. But you can probably skip paying for those programs and still be safe online, our latest tests confirm.

Our evaluations, performed in conjunction with International Consumer Research & Testing, an association of independent, not-for-profit organizations, turned up free programs that should adequately protect all but the most at-risk Internet users from malware--viruses, spyware, and other online threats.

Types

Free anti-malware programs

These are mostly downloads from such names as Avira and AVG. But there's also the Microsoft Security Essentials anti-malware program that's available as a free download for XP, Vista, and Windows 7 computers.

Free security suites

These offer not only malware protection but add a firewall and in some cases, other extras such as a child filter. But none of the free suites we tested include some other features that are often found on pay suites such as anti-spam protection, built-in backup software, and a browser toolbar that will alert you when you're visiting sites that host malware.

Pay security suites

Such suites, from brands that include Symantec and McAfee, promise comprehensive protection in one package. They offer not only malware protection but also a firewall, an anti-spam filter, and other extras. The latter usually include a child filter, often include a browser toolbar that will alert you when you're visiting sites that host malware, and sometimes include a file shredder and file backup software.

You typically buy the program online, either by downloading it or upgrading from a free trial version carried on your PC. You can use a suite on as many as three computers in the same household. Prices typically range from $40 to $80, and include a first year of service. After that, you'll typically pay another $40 to $80 per year to renew service.

Spam filters

These offer supplemental protection that you may want because your e-mail program isn't adequately filtering out unwanted messages. Often built into pay suites, free options include SPAMfighter at spamfighter.com, which we recommend.

Anti-phishing toolbars

Free security toolbars available for all major browsers provide extra protection against phishing sites, especially if you're using an older browser version or just want extra protection.

File shredders

Deleting a file from your hard drive does not remove all electronic traces of it--which can allow someone who accesses or inherits your computer to recover some or all of the file's data. To eliminate that possibility, you need file-shredding software. Some pay suites include one, or you can download Eraser free from eraser.heidi.ie.

Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on MSN. Copyright © 2007-2011 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

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