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4 Things to Consider Before Downloading Free Software for Your PC


If you think about it, we’ve all been conditioned to download free software without question or concern. Whether you have an iPhone or an Android smartphone, you’ve probably downloaded more than a few free apps, some of which may even be running in the background on your handheld devices. You may have also searched for free software on your computer to create signatures for documents, generate and track random passwords for your login credentials, or just play games to pass the time. The vast majority of free downloads are safe or were at least designed to be safe, but before you expose your computer to a free download, there are a few things you should think about.

1. You May Land on a Free Site that Distributes Malware

You might know better than to click on a link that offers a free download, but you may also feel safer searching out a site on the internet and downloading from there. A watering hole attack involves the creation of a website or app that infects visitors with malware. The software creator does not necessarily want to attack any particular individual, set of individuals, or companies, but they can benefit by infecting whichever users show up.

2. Not all Software Creators are Aware of Exploits

Many software creators are unaware that their platform is being used by cybercriminals to deliver malware to users. In fact, a bait and switch attack may work something like this: an attacker purchases ad space on a reputable website offering a free download. Because the ad appears on an otherwise credible site, users feel safe downloading the malignant program. In other cases, cybercriminals attach hidden code to a platform that infects any device that downloads it.

3. Malware May Infect Other Devices

A zombie virus installs on a host device and then attacks other connected devices. The virus may run in the background, mining data or just using the resources of the system.

4. The Free Download May Be Safe But Annoying

Some programmers monetize their software by selling ads. You may get a free and relatively safe download, but find you are bombarded by ads. Sometimes, it’s worth the price of the upgrade just to avoid this annoying feature, unless you’re just testing the software.

Is it Safe to Download Free Software?

In some cases, it’s perfectly safe and even recommended to download free software. For example, you should download updates and security patches for your operating system and programs that you’re running. While it’s possible to attach a virus or other malware to updates and patches, it’s a much less likely avenue of attack.

What to Look Out For When You Download Free Software

There are a few guidelines for preventing a malware attack from free software. This will not necessarily prevent an attack, but it will make them far less likely.

  • Download software from reputable sources – Apple, Microsoft, Google Chrome, and Linux all have sites with thousands of Apps you can download. To register an app, the creator has to disclose who they are, whether the app has tracking software in it, which parties have access to this information, etc. These stores are an unlikely access point for cybercriminals.

  • Don’t download unsolicited software – If you receive an unsolicited email offering free software, don’t download it, even if the email appears to be from a known sender. This is a common approach for phishing attacks.

  • Use a reliable anti-malware program – Antivirus/anti-malware software can often detect fresh attacks on your devices, so if you do download a malignant program, it can easily be contained and isolated.

  • Download only from the official website – For instance, if you’re reading an article about the top new apps for Macs, the author may have set up free downloads for your convenience, but it’s safer to go to the official site and download from there.

How to Safely Download and Install Software

If you have found free software that you want to try, follow these steps to download it safely:

  1. Update your anti-malware software.

  2. Make sure that your operating system is up to date.

  3. Search the name of the software in a search engine to find out of there are any known attacks associated with it.

  4. Go to the official website where the software is being offered.

  5. Download the software for your operating system: macOS, Windows, or Linux.

  6. Run a scan with your anti-malware software to ensure that nothing was downloaded.

What to Do if You Download Malware

Whether you get a warning from your anti-malware software or you start noticing that your computer is behaving as though it's been infected, you’re going to want to contain the damage. Here are steps you can take to help prevent a malware attack from being successful.

  1. Disconnect from the internet – This can prevent your data from reaching the attacker or the malware from spreading to other computers in your system.

  2. Contact your IT department – If you are on a work computer, contact your IT department immediately.

  3. Enter Safe Mode – Start or restart your computer from safe mode. This will only start essential systems.

  4. Check the Activity Monitor or Task Manager – Depending on which operating system you use, you can look for suspicious malware from your activity monitor (Mac) or task manager (windows).

  5. Run your anti-malware software – Scan your computer for viruses.

  6. Clear your cache – Go to each browser you use and clear the cache. You can find instructions for Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Edge on their websites. Don’t access them via the infected device.

If you have any concerns about lingering viruses or other types of malware, contact an IT security professional near you.

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