A daredevil used to be someone who'd jump a motorcycle over a line of cars, or maybe over a giant canyon. Today, it's the person who decides to operate their computer without antivirus software. Simply put, antivirus software is one of the most important pieces of software you could run in the background while you're using your computer, tablet, smartphone or laptop.
What is antivirus software?
The short definition of antivirus software is that it’s computer virus protection. There's a longer answer, though. The more thorough antivirus software definition is this: a program that actively searches for, protects against, detects and removes viruses and malware, such as trojans, adware and worms. You can use a combination of antivirus programs to help keep your computer secure and safe from those malicious programs that set out to do all sorts of harm on your computer.
What does antivirus software do?
Your antivirus software checks every file that you download. Whether it's a Word document, a ZIP file, a spreadsheet or EXE file, it could contain a virus or macro that launches when you double-click the icon. Antivirus software runs in the background, though, policing everything. So, it's doing a pat down on every file to make sure it's not packing any heat.
If your antivirus software finds anything suspicious, it flags it and lets you know. Then you can have the software quarantine the virus or delete it.
When you start up your antivirus software, the first thing you should do is let it update, and it's a good idea to let it update automatically. What your antivirus software is doing is updating its libraries of known viruses, which lets it protect you better. After the update, that's a good time to run a full scan of all the files on your computer. This may take a while, so you can schedule it for when you're asleep.
Sometimes PC users opt to turn off antivirus software because they fear it will slow down the computer. While some programs may cause a small lag here and there, it shouldn't be enough to be an issue for the work you're doing. If you find that your antivirus software does bog down your system, then you should consider upgrading your processor or adding more RAM. Think of antivirus software as an umbrella for when it rains. You have no idea when you might need it, but it's a huge benefit when the storm rolls in.
Why should I protect my computer from malware?
The point of malware is to infect your computer in order to search of something the attacker can use, such as personal information (banking account names, passwords, etc.), or control over your computer.
Protecting your personal information is a no-brainer because if a criminal has your personal information, it's easy for them to change passwords and email addresses, and then they can start wiring money from your accounts to their own. The malware for these purposes usually comes in the form of trojans that piggyback on a document or program that you install. This program-within-a-program could include a keylogger that records what you type, which is then sent to the attacker.
If a virus takes over your computer and makes it unusable for you, it could be because the attacker is using it remotely. To do what? Any number of things. The attacker could be sifting through your files for passwords and account information, but they could use your computer to perform attacks on bigger fish. For example, many attackers use viruses to infiltrate several anonymous computers to perform distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to bring down a website or a network. The benefit for the attacker is that it's much harder for the main target to pinpoint where the attacks are coming from if they’re using multiple computers, including yours. That makes it harder to stop the attacks, and the attacker gains the benefit of anonymity.
How do I choose antivirus software?
Now you have your answer to the question "what is antivirus?" Your next step is to choose a program. There are plenty of free antivirus software programs that work well at detecting, preventing and removing malware, but they may be lacking some more advanced features. When you pay for antivirus software, you're paying for the latest updated information and better detection. For example, the best antivirus software developers apply heuristics to find new viruses that could pass undetected through a free version. The attackers who are writing code for those viruses are smart –of course they're going to pass their virus through the most common free versions of antivirus software before launching it at unwitting victims.
Just because you tell yourself that you simply won't click on anything that looks suspicious, you could still become a victim of carefully-placed malware. A combination of macros, worms and trojans can get you to open a file that looks like it was sent from someone you know, and suddenly your computer is infected. You may not even realize it right away. Except, you would, if you had installed antivirus software.