If you have a PC, you're a target.
Those kinds of sweeping, dramatic statements tend to set my eyes a-rollin', as they frequently lead into a pitch to spend your hard-earned cash on a high-priced security suite.
Here's the thing, though: As crass as the delivery is, the message itself is true. If the bad guys aren't phishing for your personal data, they're trying to trick you out of your credit card details or angling to turn your machine into a botnet zombie. If you're connected to the Net, you really are a potential target.
But that doesn't mean you need to shell out cash for a premium security suite. Though the likes of McAfee and Symantec offer simple, seamless solutions, you can cobble together a DIY security suite of your own that provides most of the protection that the boxed options do, at none of the cost. Once you've slapped these apps on your PC and read up on how to avoid the Web's most devious security traps, you'll have a decent amount of protection from the majority of the Web's worst boogeymen.
Get a good, free antivirus program
AVG Free topped the charts in our most recent free antivirus roundup, and this superb software suite has only gotten better since. Fast and efficient, AVG does a great job of blocking malicious downloads before they happen, and it's even better at eradicating malware that has already slipped onto your machine.
Notice I said "malware," not "viruses." Despite the antivirus moniker, AVG protects against a wide range of nasty infections, and it comes with useful extras like a secure file shredder and a Do Not Track feature to shake ad networks off your tail. Check it out--but be warned that AVG tries hard to get you to sign up for its premium offerings during installation.
Have a backup antimalware tool
No antivirus product is perfect. If an especially tenacious bug sneaks past AVG, call in the Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free cavalry. This scan-on-demand program focuses on "zero day" threats rather than common offenders, so you won't want to use it as your sole protection, but it gives you a potent secondary option when your PC starts behaving suspiciously.
Firewall your PC
The other critical member of the dynamic security duo, a firewall blocks hackers from indirectly penetrating your system. You have a couple of options here: the low-key security of the default Windows Firewall, or the more demanding (yet more dynamic) ZoneAlarm Free Firewall.
Windows Firewall should suffice for most people. It sits quietly in the background until it detects a suspicious connection attempt, and it's as low-maintenance as low-maintenance can be--but it can detect only inbound penetration attempts.
ZoneAlarm Free Firewall monitors both inbound and outbound traffic for suspect behavior. Weird outbound connections could be signs of an infection, so monitoring in that direction can be valuable. Training ZoneAlarm takes quite a bit of manual labor, though, and the program has a bad habit of installing a toolbar and changing your browser's homepage and search provider unless you're careful during installation. Aside from that, though, it works as advertised and is easy to use.
Beef up your browser
With the two mainstays of PC security in place, it's time to turn to the more granular stuff.
The Internet is rife with infected or downright malicious websites. The big three browsers do a good job of warning you when a site is known for peddling malware, but they aren't so deft at identifying phishing scams (for example). The free Web of Trust and McAfee SiteAdvisor browser plug-ins crowdsource information to let you know when a site could be dangerous, using easy-to-interpret green, yellow, and red icons to indicate the page's threat level.
If you're deeply worried about Web threats, consider installing Google's Chrome, which beat all comers in security in PCWorld's battery of browser tests, thanks to a sandboxing feature that quarantines each tab to keep potential malware from spreading. You can also check out our tips for locking down Chrome even more--as well as our Firefox and Internet Explorer security tips, if Google doesn't float your boat.
Keep your software updated, silly!
Secunia Personal Software Inspector--a program that keeps all of your installed software up-to-date--isn't explicitly security software, but it's one of the most important pieces of the safety puzzle for any patched-together security system. Old, outdated software is often riddled with vulnerabilities that canny crooks can use to gain access to your PC. Secunia PSI ensures that all your system's known weak points have been reinforced with the most recent fixes from the software's developers. Seriously: Get this now.
Use a password manager
Considering how often big-name websites succumb to hack attacks, strong password management is a must. Reusing passwords is just begging for disaster! And though it's possible to create strong, memorable passwords by using mnemonic tricks, everyday users will probably find it easier to depend on a password manager to take the headaches out of online security.
I prefer KeePass, a free, open-source password manager that works across a wide array of devices and packs a random password generator. Some of my cohorts love LastPass and Dashlane. All are great--pick one and use it.
If you're going to use social media, use protection
Some of the most devious intrusions occur through social media, and most security suites now include social media safeguards of some sort. Bitdefender's Safego, a free Facebook app, scans your News Feed for malicious links and phishing attempts; if it finds something nasty, it even helps you warn your Friends.
Check out PCWorld's guide to locking down your social media accounts for additional tips as well as for add-ons to shield yourself on other services.
Most security suites include some form of child protection software, too, but Microsoft itself has been offering top-notch parental controls since the days of Vista. Windows 8 bakes the feature in (to reach it, choose Control Panel > User Accounts and Family Safety > Family Safety), but you'll have to download the Windows Essentials software package if your PC runs Windows 7 or Vista. Once your kids are set up, Microsoft's Family Safety website is the go-to resource for managing your settings.
Tracking your stolen laptop
What if your laptop winds up--gasp--pilfered? The (mostly) free and open-source Prey can increase your odds of retrieving it and frustrating the thief.
Once installed, Prey lurks in the background, sipping system resources and staying hidden. But when you activate the software from afar, using the Prey website, it starts sending frequent updates detailing your notebook's whereabouts, including screenshots of what it's being used for and even snapshots from the PC's webcam to help you I.D. the sticky-fingered perp. If you want to intervene more directly, you can remotely lock your computer.
Prey is available for Windows, OS X, iOS, Ubuntu Linux, other Linux distros, and Android. And if you're concerned about prying eyes peering into your files, you can easily encrypt your hard drive using TrueCrypt.
A few other tools can help keep your PC buttoned up nice and tight. The superb Sandboxie runs software virtually, thereby isolating it from the rest of your system--a useful failsafe for programs that could be malicious. Qualsys BrowserCheck ensures that your plug-ins are up to date, kind of like Secunia PSI for your browser. CCleaner mimics the auto-tuning tools in premium security suites and keeps your PC running lean and mean. And Belarc Advisor scans your system to provide a high-level (albeit techie-oriented) view of your PC's potential security holes.
As you can see, protecting your PC with gratis tools is definitely possible. That's not to say premium security software is useless, however. Free programs don't offer the seamless across-the-board coverage of their for-pay counterparts, and free software typically offers no customer support beyond user-manned forums. In addition, premium security software tends to achieve slightly better detection rates than free antimalware programs.
If you want to avoid those shortcomings of free offerings, check out PCWorld's roundup of nine big-name antivirus suites. We teamed up with researchers at Germany's independent AV-Test to empirically test the top premium security solutions--because hard data doesn't lie.