I Have Anti-Virus Software, Am I Safe?

April 13, 2011

I’ve heard many different variations of the question “I have anti-virus software, am I safe?” from friends, family, clients, AVG Community members, and even strangers. As hot a topic as this is, I felt it was a question worth addressing.

This isn’t a simple “yes or no” question though. The short answer is “it depends.” There are multiple factors at play that can contribute to your susceptibility to being infected by a virus despite having anti-virus software installed, some of which include…

  • Which software you’re using is a key influence. As with pretty much anything mankind has ever manufactured, quality of products differs between manufacturers, and although software isn’t necessarily a tangible good, the same age-old rule applies. Some companies make a better product than others, and some of the free software is better than some of the paid software. Based on my personal experiences with many different AV products, my professional experiences working with my IT consulting business and many other businesses, and my extensive knowledge of InfoSec in general, I recommend AVG. Free or paid, I’ve used both and they both do a great job.
  • What features your software has available is equally important. This ties in with the previous point, different vendors offer different features. Some AV software includes sand-boxing (a type of virtualization) to put a layer of separation between files or applications and your operating system, some include social networking protection, or the ability to check the safety of websites without having to actually visit them. It’s up to you to decide which features are most relevant to your own personal computing habits and keeping you safe while you go about your typical online activities.
  • Your personal computing habits are an interesting element because this causes the answer to the question posed by this article to differ completely depending on who is asking it. There are actions you can take that will undermine the protection your AV software has afforded you. There are threats out there that specifically prey on your trust to manipulate you into allowing them to have their way with your computer. Through the practice of social engineering (basically a type of con), instead of superior coding and advanced technology, these threats can infect your computer. No amount of technology and features in your AV software will protect you from these threats. The best defense against these threats is safe browsing habits and educating yourself on the types of threats that are out there.
  • Some infections are unavoidable. It’s sad, but true. There are at least 25,000 new malware variants released each day. It is impossible to keep up with that volume of malicious software on a daily basis, and while many AV vendors do a great job of gathering samples, creating virus definitions, and getting those virus definitions released to their users in updates, as well as utilizing technologies like behavioral detection, none of them can catch everything. As such, at any given time there are at least a few, and likely many more, malicious pieces of software floating around the web that your anti-virus won’t pick up on.
  • Are you using multiple anti-virus programs? In the case of anti-virus software, less is more. Most anti-virus software includes processes which “lock” specific files, a way for the anti-virus software to dynamically monitor your files in real time. This works great with one program, but when you add a second anti-virus program that offers full, active protection this can lead to one program not being able to function properly, making it useless (but not preventing it from consuming your system’s resources) or even making it interfere with the functionality of the other anti-virus software you have installed. What’s the best solution if you want a second opinion when you scan? Use an on-demand scanner like Malwarebytes Free alongside your primary anti-virus software. Malewarebytes Free does nothing to actively protect you against viruses (so it won’t interfere with any AV software that does), and only scans when you start a scan manually, but it does a great job of detecting and removing most malware that may slip past your primary anti-virus software.

As you can see, the question “I have anti-virus software, am I safe?” has a┬ámultifaceted answer that differs based on which brand you’re using, how you use your computer, how educated you are on how the threats and scams work, and in some cases pure luck. You are of course much safer using anti-virus software than you would be if you were not, but it’s important to remember that anti-virus software is not your get out of jail free card to do whatever you want on the Internet and not worry about getting infected. You can increase your odds of avoiding viruses even more by practicing safe browsing habits and becoming more educated on how online threats work and how to identify and avoid them. One great way to do that is by “Liking” the AVG Facebook Community, where information on the latest threats and how to stay safe online is shared, and your questions can be answered by knowledgeable volunteers (such as myself) and AVG staff.