Blog The Dangers of Free Downloads (and How to Protect Yourself)
Alex Lloyd November 12, 2013

The Dangers of Free Downloads (and How to Protect Yourself)

dangers of free downloadsNowadays, you can find droves of free and “free” software covering everything from entertainment to computer utilities.

But be careful as things that are “free” are not always good or safe.

What’s the Danger of Downloading?

Before we talk about how to protect yourself, let’s take a moment to understand the dangers of downloading.

Today, malware is a rapidly growing threat. Anti-virus company McAfee published in a recent report that they log as many as 100,000 new instances of malware every day. And the danger is not limited to desktop or laptop computers.

Another report by the security authority reports that mobile malware hit 50,000 reports in 2013. This may not seem like a lot, but compared to roughly 3,000 in 2011, it’s clear that the problem is exponentially growing.

Consequences for installing unverified and untrustworthy programs can range from a minor annoyance to ruined credit. Toolbars in browsers and “system cleaning” software can be a drain on computer resources, the latter sometimes intentionally hampering system performance in order to convince you of its worth.

These inconveniences pale compared to the infection of adware, which generates advertisements on your machine without even needing a browser window open. But the brass ring of cybercrime is, as we all know, identity theft.

Spyware, unknowingly installed on your computer, can log your passwords and credit card information and send it via email to cyber criminals, at which point even free music isn’t worth the cost.

The tricky thing about downloading is that the aforementioned software can infect your machine without your knowledge, sometimes coming bundled with software from reputable sources. The process of bundling malware with legitimate software is not complicated either.

A simple search actually provides potential cyber criminals with a free tool that achieves the deed quickly and easily. Clicking absently through a software installation dialogue can result in your unknowing consent to install toolbars and adware that can present back-door access to your computer and personal information.

As for illegal downloading: if acquiring programs from un-trustworthy sources is like ordering dinner at a restaurant with no hairnets, then doing the same on P2P networks is like rummaging through the trash for a meal.

However, not all free programs are malicious.  Let’s take a look at what you can do to make sure you are downloading safely.

Start at the Source

First, be aware of the risk level of particular types of downloads. The Internet presents the opportunity to download attractive wallpapers, acquire free music, and play free games. Scam artists are aware of this attraction.

The most dangerous search terms for malicious software, according to McAfee, include “free screen savers”, “free wallpaper”, “free games”, “free lyrics”, and “free music downloads”. Even if the program offered is something seemingly innocent (download manager for music, search tool for lyrics, etc.), these bundles likely contain something malicious and should be avoided.

Next, use common sense when browsing the web. Begin by asking yourself, “Do I really need this program?” If the answer is yes, ask yourself if the program is being offered by a legitimate website or if the page seems sketchy.

Perform a Google search on the company offering the software and the site it is being downloaded from and pay attention to any reports of phishing or malware. Do not fall for fake, flashing notifications that claim to detect computer security issues. The reality is, installing the program they offer will actually lead to security issues.

Do Your Part

Even if you’ve verified that your download is a verified product coming from a trustworthy source, do not download if you don’t already have an anti-virus software installed on your computer. Once the program is downloaded, you’ve opened yourself to potential security issues.

So before you click the button, check your computer to make sure you have a good antivirus program installed and that it is up to date with the latest virus and malware definitions.

Additionally, make sure that the program you download has the capability to scan files prior to download, as this will stop many problems at their source. You can never be too careful when the stakes are so high.

Assuming the security check came out clean, you’re now ready to download, however you are not out of the woods yet. Before you install, upload the file to Virus Total, a site that checks files from thousands of users and provides a report of when, and how frequently issues were discovered with the file.

If this last check yields no red flags, go ahead and install the program carefully. Click through each screen one at a time and read what you are agreeing to. Many programs will sneak in a step with a pre-checked box, agreeing to install additional software you may not have known about pre-download.

Uncheck these boxes and proceed to the next window slowly and carefully. Once the software is installed, run an anti-virus scan one more time and pay attention to any detected issues and then proceed once the scans come back clean.

These days, you cannot be too careful. Take proper precautions when searching for new software and avoid so-called “free” offers of popular entertainment. You may end up spending a little extra time on the computer, but you’ll sleep better knowing your private information remains private.

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About Alex Lloyd

Alex Lloyd heads AnchorFree's content department. Before joining the team, he was a former professional race car driver—competing in the Indianapolis 500 four times—and has spent the past decade writing content for major publications such as Yahoo and CNN.

View all posts by Alex Lloyd
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