Panda Security reported in January that approximately 50 percent of the world's computers are compromised by some form of malware.

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Back when your computer was shiny and new, it likely came with preinstalled Norton or McAfee anti-virus software. It would periodically pop up little notices that it had downloaded the latest updates, and you felt snug and secure when you surfed online.

Then that trial membership expired. You may not have even noticed the lapse in coverage, assuming that the icon in your toolbar was a sign that all was well — or, like many, you may have been wary to spend your hard-earned cash to subscribe. This story is so common that it’s one reason why Panda Security reported in January that approximately 50 percent of the world’s computers are compromised by some form of malware.

While I fondly remember the days when viruses were primarily built to annoy their victims, today’s viruses are far more dangerous. Infected computers attack other computers. Hackers use these vast networks of infected computers or “botnets” to send spam, break websites and infiltrate corporate networks to steal credit-card data and customer information. Before you decide to unplug your computer, rest assured that there are some easy ways to protect yourself.

If you’re already running an anti-virus program and making sure that it is up to date, kudos! If you elected to shell out the dough to keep your Norton or McAfee running after the trial ended, keep in mind that these two programs dominate the consumer security space. This makes them the biggest targets for hackers and virus writers who study their code to find vulnerabilities. While I am not suggesting that you look for an unknown, untested anti-virus for your computer’s safety, there may be good reason to consider switching to one of the great free anti-virus options available.

One of my favorite anti-virus programs for the basic user is Microsoft Security Essentials. It’s free, easy to use, updated frequently and provides great protection from most Internet-born parasites. The fact that it’s made by Microsoft, the company that makes Windows, is a great benefit. Who is better equipped to know which Windows vulnerabilities hackers are targeting? Programmers can then integrate the fix seamlessly into Windows.

If you just can’t get past the idea of trusting Microsoft to protect your Windows PC, or if you are running an alternate operating system, consider avast! free anti-virus ( It’s one of the highest-rated anti-virus programs, according to AV Comparatives, an independent anti-virus program reviewer. Avast offers both a free and a paid version, and boasts one of the fastest virus scans on the market.

It also uses fewer system resources when scanning, so you can continue to use your computer normally while the scan runs in the background. Anyone who has been held hostage by a seemingly endless scan that makes everything else on your system slow to a useless crawl can appreciate this benefit. Fun side note: You can select different voices to proclaim, “Ding! Virus definitions have been updated.” I am quite partial to Pirate.

Finally, if compromised or lost data would devastate your productivity, check out Sandboxie. This application allows you to run certain programs “virtually,” like putting them in quarantine. Essentially, you open your web browser or email in a “sandbox,” so an infected website or virus-laced email attachment won’t compromise the rest of your system. When you close the program, you destroy the sandbox’s contents, including any infections. However, cookies and temp files go, too, so if you like to auto-login to websites you frequent, this solution will likely annoy you.

Don’t surf naked — get some protection. For more ways to be safe on the scary wide web, visit