The Third episode of Digital Defenders is available to listen on Spotify and iTunes

Computer viruses have been around for almost as long as computers have, but these days the threats are many and varied. Now, malware that causes adverts to pop up on your screen are the least of your worries: criminals are hell-bent on stealing your cash and your personal information and they’re coming up with ever-more sophisticated methods of doing just that.

To combat all this, security software has also evolved and although you can still get pure antivirus apps, security suites are arguably the better choice for everyone in 2019.

Security suite vs antivirus

A security suite offers a much broader selection of features and tools than basic antivirus. It might include a password manager, firewall, backup solution and even a VPN service. Some providers offer free browser extensions to warn you of malicious websites, notify you when updates are available to keep your apps and drivers current and parental control tools to help keep kids safe online and manage how much screen time they get.

Even antivirus – the core software which stops your device being infected by malware – does more nowadays. At the minimum it should prevent spyware, viruses and other forms of malware entering your system, much less installing themselves and doing any harm.

In the old days, antivirus software would check files against a known list of malware to identify a rogue one from a clean one. But now, a lot of companies use AI and machine learning to monitor behaviour and detect when something doesn’t look right. This can mean that threats which don’t arrive in files can still be protected, such as attacks on your computer’s memory to unauthorised requests to use your device’s camera.

Ransomware protection is another feature you should look out for: this protects your important files from being encrypted and made inaccessible until you pay the ransom.

Put simply, if you’re running only basic antivirus on your laptop and PC, then you should check exactly how much protection it’s giving you and consider upgrading it to a full security suite which offers better security and privacy features.

Demystifying the security jargon

The trouble with security software is that there’s too much jargon. We’ve already looked at ransomware, but what is a firewall or a VPN? Is spyware the same as antivirus? Let’s have a closer look at what it all means.

Malware: an all-encompassing term for any software that is malicious or causes harm to your computer or device to disable it or hijack it for illicit purposes.

Spyware: This is the term for malicious software which specifically targets your personal information and other data. It tends to hide in the background so you don’t notice it. It might track your online activity, log what you’re typing with the intention of gathering information such as your name, address, financial details, logins and more.

Firewall: Software that is essentially a set of rules which determine whether data can enter or leave a network. Your broadband router contains a firewall, as does Windows. At a simplistic level, their aim is to filter out malicious data and stop your devices being hacked, but their protection is determined by the rules that are set.

VPN: Standing for Virtual Private Network, a VPN encrypts the connection between your computer and a VPN server on the internet. This is used for both security and privacy. 

Password manager: An app which stores login details securely and which usually automatically enters these when you launch an app or visit a website for which the login is already stored. This means you don’t have to remember which email address and password you used for a particular site, and you can have multiple, complex passwords and not use the same one for lots of websites.

Spam blocker: A filtering system which stops spam emails from reaching your inbox. It will typically be less than 100 percent effective, but you can ‘train’ it by telling it which messages you consider to be spam.

How to avoid viruses

The obvious way is to ensure you have a good security suite installed and that it’s allowed to automatically update itself.

But scammers know that you’re the easier target and will try to trick you into handing over your login details and other information rather than developing complex malware.

So be careful of the links you click on in emails and double check that a website is the genuine article before you key in your email address and password.

The best email services (but also some security suites) will filter out spam email so you never see it, but in case any slips through the net here are the messages to watch out for:

  • Those telling you an account has been suspended or locked and you need to log in to fix it
  • That you’re due a tax rebate and you need to provide your bank details
  • That you’ve won a prize that you never entered or won a lottery but you never bought a ticket

When searching or browsing online, be careful to check before you click on links. Again, good security software will warn you if you’re about to go to a website that has been reported as unsafe.

Note: "Norton LifeLock is the Consumer Division of Symantec”