Technology Software

How To Protect Against Risky Freeware Downloads

Q. How can I protect myself from risky freeware?

A. Here are steps to take before you download freeware:

Do your homework. Before even thinking about downloading freeware, research it a bit. For example, you can Google the name of the freeware or you can read about it on message boards. "Oftentimes if there is a piece of malicious software out there, different postings in different places will tell you whether this is malware," says Tim Lordan, executive director of the Internet Education Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to educating the public about Internet issues. You can also read freeware reviews from commercial sites that test the software, such as CNET or ZDNet.

Look for a seal of approval. Only download from well-known vendors that participate in verification programs that confirm software is legitimate. For example, TRUSTe is one such organization that provides vendors with a seal of approval logo after a due diligence process has been completed. Look for the TRUSTe logo to confirm a site is safe.

Keep security programs up-to-date. It's essential to have anti-virus and anti-spyware software running on your computer before you download anything, Lordan says. But take a further step and make sure that those programs -- along with your computer's operating system, such as Windows or Mac -- and web browser are updated. Also make sure you download and install all security patches. "A lot of this malicious software exploits older versions of your software. If there is a hole in your software, it's important to keep it patched," Lordan says.

Be wary of social network freeware. A growing number of social networks, such as MySpace and Facebook, also offer free applications you can use while on those sites or by downloading them to your computer. For example, Facebook has a widget that lets you check your account from your desktop (allowing you to get alerts when a friend request arrives). But there are still questions about the safety of social network freeware applications because they can't always be verified and most of the social networks disavow themselves of responsibility.

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