Anti-virus explained

First things first, I’ll start off with a few definitions that will help you understand anti-virus software:

  • Malware – Short for malicious software.  Any type of software designed to cause damage, including spyware, viruses, ransomware, trojans and worms.
  • Virus – A program that passes itself from one device to another, usually doing harm along the way.
  • Spyware – Software that watches what you’re doing on your computer and reports back to the person who wrote it. Usually with unpleasant intent.
  • Ransomware – A nasty piece of software that either locks you out of your device or encrypts all your files so you can’t read them.  You can only get your files back by paying ransom money.
  • Trojan – A program that looks like you want it (e.g. a handy program to play music) but that also includes something you don’t want (e.g. a virus or spyware).
  • Worm – A bit like a virus but different in technical ways.  Real techies get annoyed if you call worms viruses and vice versa. But they’re both bad news.

Anti-virus software

In the strictest definition, anti-virus software just protects your device against viruses.  In reality though, the vast majority of software that’s called “anti-virus” also protect against all the other types of malware – ransomware, spyware, worms etc.  They should be called “anti-malware” programs, but anti-virus software has been around for so long that the name has stuck, even though they protect against much more than just viruses.

Whether you need anti-virus software on your device or not depends on what type of device you’ve got – a tablet, a smartphone or a computer (laptop or desktop PC).  

For iPads and iPhones

If you’ve got an iPad or an iPhone then you don’t need anti-virus software. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that all the apps on the App Store are checked by Apple to make sure they’re not infected with anything nasty, so you know they’re OK to download. The second is that iPads and iPhones don’t allow unauthorised programs, like viruses, to work – every program has to come from the App Store. So this means that even if someone emailed you something dodgy, the operating system that controls them won’t let it install on the device.

(The big anti-virus companies do sell security apps for the iPad and iPhone, but these protect your information if your device is stolen, rather than protect it from viruses.)

For Android tablets and phones

There’s quite a lot of debate at the moment about whether you need anti-virus software on Android tablets and smartphones, e.g. ones made by Sony or Samsung. Google also check all the apps on the Google Play Store to make sure they aren’t infected, and there are various in-built protection measures on modern tablets and phones. If you stick to only downloading apps from the Play Store you should be absolutely fine.

But it is possible to change settings on your device so that you can download apps from elsewhere… and they might well not be safe. So my advice on an Android device is to only download apps from the Google Play Store, and make sure your device is set to not allow apps from “unknown sources” (if you’re not sure whether the setting is on or off, you can search for “unknown sources” in the settings app).

And if you want to err on the side of caution you can install a free anti-virus app – for example the Avast app. To download it, just go to the Play Store, search for ‘Avast antivirus’ and tap on ‘Install’.

For computers

You really do need anti-virus software on computers. If your computer is running Windows 8, 8.1 or 10, it’ll come with an anti-virus program called Windows Defender built-in for free.  Windows Defender does a decent job (and it’s got much better lately) – but if you look around there are better anti-virus programs (both paid-for versions and free versions).

Norton and McAfee are probably the best known brands of anti-virus software that you can buy, and they’re both pretty good. When you buy your PC, you may have either Norton or McAfee already installed on a trial basis. If so, you can use this for the trial period and then decide whether you want to pay to continue using it, or to swap to something else.

There are a few free anti-virus programs available too – for example Kaspersky or AVG. They’re free for home use, but you have to pay if you’re a business above a certain size or if you want extras like spam protection. But as far as virus protection goes, in my opinion they’re as good as any.  They do tend to badger you to upgrade to the paid-for version, but it’s usually not too annoying.

You can download them from the following websites:
Kaspersky Antivirus: https://www.kaspersky.co.uk/free-antivirus
AVG Antivirus: https://www.avg.com/en-gb/free-antivirus-download

It’s important that you don’t have two anti-virus programs turned on at once though, as they can cancel each other out and leave you unprotected.  (Windows Defender automatically turns off when you install another anti-virus program.)  If you want to change your anti-virus software but you’re not sure how to do it, then leave a comment below, or ask a question in the clubroom.

Preventing getting malware in the first place (for all devices)

There are a few things you can do to stop nasties getting onto your device in the first place.  And even though phones and tablets aren’t as susceptible as computers, it’s good to do these things anyway:

  1. Some nasties get in by exploiting flaws in the software that runs your device (Windows for computers and iOS or Android for tablets and phones).  If a flaw is found, it’s fixed and an update is sent out to everyone using it, so it’s important to make sure your device gets these updates automatically.  Most devices are set to update automatically by default, but if you’re not sure, drop us a comment and we’ll explain how to check.
  2. As most viruses travel in email attachments, if you get an email from someone you don’t know with an attachment, don’t open it. The email subject will often be quite alarmist or enticing in some way to get you to open the attachment, for example “URGENT – open at once”, or “You’ve won the lottery – open for details”. Even when you get an attachment from someone you do know, check it’s genuine. If it says “Here are those photos of us in Blackpool that I promised you” and they did say they’d send you the photos, then it’s likely to be fine. If it just says “Important files – read at once” then you should check whether that person really sent them or whether their computer is infected.
  3. Some spyware installs itself on your computer without your permission when you visit a dodgy website – just the action of visiting the website is enough to trigger the program to be downloaded and installed on your computer. This is called “drive-by downloading” as it happens when you just “drive-by” (i.e. briefly visit) a website.  I can’t list all the dodgy websites in the world here, but don’t panic about what websites you’re going on. The sorts of website that tend to have spyware are generally to do with some kind of illegal activity (e.g. downloading pirated films) or selling adult content. If you stay away from these then you should be fine, although do use your common sense – if you click on something and are taken to a website that doesn’t look quite right then close the website.
  4. Other spyware pretends to be something useful so you choose to install it. For example, it might pretend to be a free word processing program, which when you install it will actually work to avoid making you suspicious, but it will also install some spyware at the same time.  So don’t install software you download from the internet unless you’re confident it’s genuine. If you want to download something from a big software manufacturer like Adobe or Microsoft, then go to their official website and download it from there rather than doing something like searching for it using Google and clicking on the first website result that comes up.
  5. Another thing you need to watch out for is a phone call claiming to be from Microsoft or an internet provider like BT.  They’ll say they’ve found a problem with your computer or your internet connection.  They’ll then either ask for money to fix it (a plain scam) or ask to take remote control of your computer to solve the problem, but they’ll actually download malware of some kind onto it.  Microsoft would never ring you – you don’t buy computers directly from them, so they wouldn’t have a clue that you owned one.  BT may well ring you, if that’s who you get your internet from, but they would never ask you to pay a fee to fix a problem or take control of your machine.  Of course, if you’ve rung them to complain about a fault and they’re returning your call, that’s fine.