Consumer Alert: Free Spyware

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This article is the archived version of a report that appeared in June 2009 Consumer Reports Magazine. Failing to keep your computer safe from online threats can shorten its life and lead to the theft or corruption of data, including sensitive personal information. Yet our 2009 State of the Net Survey shows that 35 percent of U.S. households don't use software to guard against inadvertently downloading "badware," including programs that spy on your online activity, and 18 percent don't use a program to block potentially destructive online viruses.

If you've been avoiding security software because of its cost, our latest tests bring good news: There are fine, free programs to protect against viruses, badware, and unwanted e-mail spam.

Of the seven free software programs we tested this year, the best (from Avira, Microsoft, and Spamfighter) are the same no-cost programs we recommended last year, though all three performed notably better than their 2008 versions did. They were on par with the best pay suites we tested. Even the less effective among them (Alwil Avast and AVG antivirus, and Lavasoft Ad-Aware and Safer Networking Spybot antibadware) proved no worse than the lowest-scoring pay suites.

We evaluate free and pay software with actual threats we capture on the Web and some that we modify to represent threats too new to have been discovered. The best programs this year detected 80 percent or more of the modified threats and updated their databases within a day or two to detect all the actual threats. The worst program detected no more than 70 percent of the modified viruses and detected few of the actual threats within our test period.

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