Tips for protecting a Windows home computer

Images of Windows-based Randy Hollowell, IT services

A home computer represents a significant investment. Over time it becomes an irreplaceable part of your life, helping you communicate, study and complete assignments and providing the occasional cathartic round of League of Legends with your fellow champions.

Then one day, you notice sluggish performance and pop-ups from some annoying coupon app. What’s going on? Brace yourself, my friend: Your software has been compromised by unwanted advertising or — even worse — a virus. If only you could turn back the clock ... but that’s messed up, too.

Luckily, there are free or low-cost ways to guard against both malicious and merely bothersome software problems on Windows computers. Here are some tips for protecting your home PC (your work computer should already be protected):

1. Antivirus software is a must. Many good programs are free for personal use; some provide both real-time protection and cleaning functionality. Microsoft Security Essentials (bundled with Windows Defender in Windows 8 and later) is a good all-around choice. Standouts in PC Magazine’s latest tests included Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware.

2. Software security updates are issued regularly but are tough to keep track of. Personal Software Inspector works in tandem with your antivirus to make sure your programs are properly patched with security updates. It then supplies your computer with the necessary updates to keep it safe.

3. Guard against unwanted software. Have you ever accidentally installed a toolbar or app that you didn’t know you were getting? Some programs sneak in a “Would you like to install this software also?” check box, and it’s easy to miss it when you are in a hurry. If you’d like to defeat this trick before it has a chance to download, check out Unchecky, a program that automatically deselects the check boxes that frequently lead to adware getting installed on machines.

4. Beware of bogus download sites. Sites that offer free games, music, wallpaper or screensavers seem to be particularly prone to spyware and malware. This has become enough of a problem that Google Search, the Chrome browser, and third-party Google advertisements now warn people before allowing them to proceed to a risky site. If you receive such a warning, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.

5. Perform routine system maintenance. Remove unused or unwanted programs and defragment your hard drive occasionally. See Windows Performance & Maintenance for additional details.

If, despite your best efforts, it appears that your personal computer is infected with a virus or adware, take swift action. If your computer is still under warranty, visit the MiTech computer repair service in Shriver Center for professional advice. Local computer shops can also diagnose and repair software-related problems.