NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, September 2008
My Favorite FREE PC Utilities – Part 5 – Malware Scanners
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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On my weekly radio show (Mondays, 6-7pm, KLVI 560AM) I frequently receive calls from listeners who may have been infected by a virus, worm, Trojan, or other form of malware, despite having antivirus software installed. This is actually more prevalent than many users realize, as there are many so called “zero-day” threats circulating for which the antivirus companies have not yet released protective digital signatures to detect and remove the threats. As I have reiterated countless times, it is important to note that there is a lag time, sometimes substantial, between the appearance of a threat, and the distribution by the antivirus companies of protective digital signatures. During this lag time, the computer is vulnerable to new threats. Another parallel issue is that people typically do not update their protective security software as often as they need to, often relying on a default setting that may be too long. I have callers who are furious that they are infected, despite the fact that they have name brand, reputable and often expensive security software that they update on a daily basis; that is inadequate considering the high rate of new security threats that show up on a continuous basis. An analogy would be this morning’s newspaper; it may have today’s date on the masthead, but it is really yesterday’s news. Somewhat similarly, this morning’s antivirus updates are for viruses and other threats found last night, leaving us unprotected from today’s threats.

It is a good security practice to periodically determine if your antivirus and anti-spyware software has been breached, a risk that may not be apparent. Fortunately for us, there are several free online utilities that will perform a security scan on our computers, utilizing the latest, continuously updated signature files. The granddaddy of the free online scans, and arguably one of the most popular, is Trend Micro’s Housecall, online at housecall.trendmicro.com (also still available from its classical URL, housecall.antivirus.com). The process of performing a Housecall free scan is simple. Open the page, and click on the “house” icon. It will first lead to a page offering the option to purchase Trend’s Internet Security Suite, but clicking on the “Launch Housecall Free Scan” icon will open the free scanning utility. Housecall will run on almost any reasonably modern computer with Windows 98SE or later (Vista is not listed), and a contemporary browser (Firefox, Mozilla, or Internet Explorer). Housecall will also run on a Mac with OS X 10.4 “Tiger”, LINUX, and SOLARIS. Depending on the browser used, Housecall will install either an ActiveX (Internet Explorer), or Java (Mozilla and Firefox) utility that includes the core engine. Once installed, the utility will detect and remove malware, consisting of viruses, worms Trojans, grayware, and spyware. If spyware or other malware is detected and removed, Housecall will attempt to repair any damage they caused to the system. Housecall will also scan for vulnerabilities of installed programs and network connections. Depending on the speed of the computer and the size of the hard drive, Housecall may take minutes to hours to run. If Housecall says the system is clean and free of malware, it likely really is.

Microsoft is a “Johnny come lately” to the free online scan business, with an online version of its OneCare product at safety.live.com. Being ActiveX based, the OneCare online scan requires Internet Explorer with ActiveX enabled. After opening the web page, the user has four icons to select from in the center of the page, Protection, Clean up, Tune up, and Full Service Scan. The “Protection” icon will run Microsoft’s free online malware scan, which is now a very capable product. It will scan for viruses, worms, Trojans, spyware, and other malware, and will attempt to remove any malware that it finds. In side by side tests, it is comparable in detection and speed to Housecall. The other icons on the page can be used to remove junk files from the hard drive (Clean up), or improve performance through defragging and other services (Tune up). Click on the “Full Service Scan” icon to run all three services sequentially, which is not a bad choice for periodic maintenance.

No security software is perfect and invulnerable, and an additional layer of security is desirable. PC Tools Software has a freeware version of its popular Threatfire software (http://www.threatfire.com), which runs on top of any antivirus software installed, improving the level of protection without interfering with the original security software. Published reports and tests indicate that Threatfire plugs holes in the name brand security software, greatly enhancing combined security effects through synergy. Threatfire is not a free standing product, but instead intended to run with other security software. In a published report of the efficacy of Threatfire when run with several of the top selling software suites (2007 versions), increased detection and protection of malware from 15% to 235% occurred, compared to the base security software without Threatfire. It should be noted that unlike some of the security software, Threatfire is not a resource hog, and utilizes only minimal system resources when running, and does not significantly degrade system performance.

I have Threatfire installed on all of my computers, regardless of the other security software installed. I notice from a “balloon” that it updates automatically several times a day, but it is not dependent solely on digital signatures, like most of the other security products. Threatfire detects malicious behavior, such that it can protect against known threats (with published digital signatures) and unknown and “zero-day” threats, for which no signatures are currently available. The quality of Threatfire has been recognized by the technical press, with numerous awards and other recognition. PC Magazine has twice acknowledged the excellence of Threatfire by awarding it its “Editors’ Choice Award”.

By periodically running one of the free online scans to verify that the computer is free of malware that may have slipped through its defenses, and installing an additional layer of defense like Threatfire, the user can do much to improve the security of his computer. These tasks can be accomplished for free, and they are well worth the price.

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