Risks to Watch For When Downloading & Installing Free Software

Recently, we wrote an article called with the top 7 Screen Savers for Windows 7 for 2012. Something we learned while writing this, is that you really can’t be too careful when you’re researching and installing new software. In this article we’re going to use what we’ve learned about finding new screen savers as an example of the risks any new unknown software can pose to your system, and the methods we used to minimize those dangers. We found navigating these risks to be very eye opening, and hopefully our experiences will be helpful for your own adventures in software hunting.

Toolbars

Some shady toolbars can steal your information, and even the good ones can pile up quickly and clutter your browsers if you are not careful. Having one or two toolbars might be useful, especially if it’s for a search engine you already use a lot, like Google. But, more than a few and your screen will need to be saved in a different kind of way. Often, new software will attempt to install somewhat random toolbars from websites you’ve rarely ever used. Eventually, you could be facing a situation where you see more toolbars on your browser than actual websites.

Perils of Free Software

NOTE: Image credit goes to CyberTech Guide.

It’d be funny if this wasn’t a common problem I have to fix when I visit some relatives and friends. You know who you are.

A lot of free software, like screen savers, will either force or trick you into accepting a toolbar. Often, software is free because advertisers are making up the difference by slipping a toolbar into the installation. Read what you’re getting into, and make sure to uncheck or decline any offers for toolbars you won’t actually use very much. Usually, accepting a toolbar will be the default choice on a panel, so you really do have to be careful and watch for it.

Perils of Free Software

Some software will outright require you to accept a toolbar in order to have the software for free. Make sure you really want the whole package before you accept it, because sometimes toolbars can be difficult to get rid of, once they have been installed.

Unwanted Software and Offers

Besides toolbars, there are several other kinds of software that are alternatively offered or forced when installing free software. These can include several different types of software. I will talk about the most common of them.

A common form is a software "buddy," like our friend below, who was meant to help you use your computer... but was more invasive and distracting than anything. While the infamous BonziBUDDY is itself gone, imitations remain and are about as equally distracting. Often, these will now take the form of an attractive and scantily-clad girl or guy. Like the BonziBUDDY, these programs are very likely to contain malware.

Perils of Free Software

Another type of unwanted software are browsers (sometimes fake ones), which could easily be modified and include unwanted piece of functionality that does something you don’t want, like monitor your activity or steal personal information. If you did want a new browser, it is much safer to go directly to the source, just as you would if you decided you preferred Firefox or Chrome to Internet Explorer, than to accept what comes bundled with other software.

Several varieties of trial software are also often offered. These include games which may require an additional purchase to continue playing, or offers of security solutions. This latter option can be particularly risky to install, especially if you already have other security in place. Having two security solutions in place, with the same kind of functionality being offered, can lead to conflicts and computer crashes. Just like with browsers, it is better to make an informed choice and download and install security solutions from their official webpage, instead of using what comes bundled with other software.

Finally, some software may ask or require you to sign your email up for spam (they won’t tell you it is spam though), change your homepage to their website, or even buy into other promotions in order to enjoy the product for free. Caveat emptor.

Viruses, Trojans, and Adware

This is another one of those problems that can be a risk with any new software download. Having solid anti-virus software on your computer is a must for this, and I recommend you browse our Security for Everyone series to research which would be best for you.

However, for an added layer of protection, you can also scan each file you download before you install it to see how much of a risk it is. The way we do this, is by using a handy little web service called Virus Total. Basically, you go to their website and upload a file to them before you install it.

Perils of Free Software

The service will then tell you if anyone else has uploaded the file and if they found anything wrong with it. You’ll find that most popular files out there have been uploaded at least once before. It will also offer to (re)analyse it with most every major anti-virus software on the market.

Perils of Free Software

Finally, it will give you the option of leaving comments and details for other users about the file. If you’re going to make use of this option, be sure to set up an account with Virus Total, first!

As a warning, if only a few lesser known anti-viruses are finding something suspicious in a file, it still might be OK to use. Make sure to check the reputations of any anti-virus that marks a file as suspicious. If it’s a more reputable one like Kaspersky, F-Secure, Norton or BitDefender, you should of course trust it. However, if only anti-viruses of low reputation are giving warnings, it could easily be a false alarm.

Conclusion

While we found these problems while sorting through screen savers, these tips should be helpful if applied to most any unknown software you find on the web. Let us know if you have any tricks of your own, for keeping your computers secure while testing out new programs!

Before we go, we would also like to recommend reading a few articles from other websites, which will be very helpful in your education about the perils of malware and how to stay safe.

Recommended articles:

Why do people fall for Trojans?
Stay safe online: 5 secrets every PC (and Mac) owner should know