Why Free Software Downloads Aren't Always SafeElizabeth Wasserman
Who among us doesn’t love free stuff? But when it comes to free software, however, you might want to watch out. A free program you download over the Internet could contain harmful code that could do all kinds of damage to your computer or mobile device. It could mess up other software, take control of your computer, or compromise your personal data and expose you to possible identity theft.
Free software -- known as "freeware" -- is growing in popularity for computers and mobile devices because it can be easily accessed over the Internet. But there is another side to getting software for free. The old saying that "you get what you pay for" may apply to freeware.
Here’s what you need to know about freeware, the risks and how to keep your computer and its data secure:
Q. What is freeware?
A. To put it simply, freeware is free software that you install on your computer -- knowingly or not. For example, freeware can be a free game you install on your computer or a free program that helps you track expenses or even weight loss. Freeware can be delivered to you in a few ways, including on a CD or downloaded from a web site. And these days some freeware goes by another name: widget.
But what about security? Well, some freeware is safe and some isn’t. It often depends on the source. Freeware lacks some of the standard features that we have come to expect in software -- tech support, bug fixes, downloadable patches, and virus definitions, among them. Tech-savvy users might be able to understand and weigh the risks of using freeware, but more novice users might not want to expose themselves to potential hazards to their computer, their files and their personal information.
Q. Where can I find freeware?
A. Here are a few common providers of free software:
Well-known companies: The same companies that you buy software from often also offer freeware. Sometimes the freebie comes in the form of a trial subscription so you can give a product a test drive before buying. Other times, the freebie can be used for as long as you want it, but the company is often motivated by trying to sell you product upgrades or other software -- and they may pester you. Popular freeware includes Adobe's Acrobat Reader, Apple's QuickTime and web browsers. Free software available from well-known companies is generally safe, says Jeff Godlis, spokesperson for i-SAFE, an Internet safety education organization. "You have to agree to a licensing agreement to use those," he says. "They are reputable companies."
Shareware makers: Many smaller software developers allow you to use software for free on a trial basis, which is known as shareware. “Commonly, shareware developers ask that you contribute something after you use it for a while -- like $15 -- but you don't usually have to," says Russell Dean Vines, chief security advisor for the Gotham Technology Group, a New York consulting firm. They also may try to sell you upgrades or other software. To verify whether a shareware maker is legitimate, you can try to see if their name is listed on the web site of a reputable organization, such as the Association of Software Professionals, a trade organization for software developers. But for non-tech-savvy folks, it may still be better to pay for a brand name you know.
Widget and open-source developers: There are sites all over the web offering free widgets and so-called open source programs (meaning the techies among us can modify the software) such as games, music applications, accounting or office programs. But the security of these programs tends to be harder to verify.
Q. What are the risks of freeware?
A. You need to be cautious about which free programs you download because that freeware program can end up costing you a bundle. Here’s why: some of these no-cost applications also have spyware or adware or other malicious code -- such as viruses, worms or so-called Trojan horses -- embedded inside. So sometimes when you download some freeware onto your computer via the Internet, malware can also sneak onto your machine. One result could be the destruction of your important files. Another risk of freeware is that your computer could be attacked by botnets, which are malicious programs that take control of your computer so thieves can steal your identity.
There are also free programs that claim they protect your computer, files and information from online threats. But beware, experts say. "It is risky to use freeware for security software," Vines says. He recommends researching the company and their products before downloading, but even then it may be safer to pay for security protection and go with one of the more established security software programs. "Unfortunately, some bad guys try to masquerade as good guys," says Vines.
Q. How can I protect myself from risky freeware?
A. Here are steps to take before you download freeware:
- Do your homework. Before even thinking about downloading freeware, research it a bit. For example, you can Google the name of the freeware or you can read about it on message boards. "Oftentimes if there is a piece of malicious software out there, different postings in different places will tell you whether this is malware," says Tim Lordan, executive director of the Internet Education Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to educating the public about Internet issues. You can also read freeware reviews from commercial sites that test the software, such as CNET or ZDNet.
- Look for a seal of approval. Only download from well-known vendors that participate in verification programs that confirm software is legitimate. For example, TRUSTe is one such organization that provides vendors with a seal of approval logo after a due diligence process has been completed. Look for the TRUSTe logo to confirm a site is safe.
- Keep security programs up-to-date. It's essential to have anti-virus and anti-spyware software running on your computer before you download anything, Lordan says. But take a further step and make sure that those programs -- along with your computer’s operating system, such as Windows or Mac -- and web browser are updated. Also make sure you download and install all security patches. "A lot of this malicious software exploits older versions of your software. If there is a hole in your software, it's important to keep it patched," Lordan says.
- Be wary of social network freeware. A growing number of social networks, such as MySpace and Facebook, also offer free applications you can use while on those sites or by downloading them to your computer. For example, Facebook has a widget that lets you check your account from your desktop (allowing you to get alerts when a friend request arrives). But there are still questions about the safety of social network freeware applications because they can’t always be verified and most of the social networks disavow themselves of responsibility.
At the end of the day, trust your gut and the old adage: There is no such thing as free lunch. So check out what the motive is behind why the freeware you want is free to begin with. Does the creator want to ultimately sell you something? Are they testing the software for bugs or did they make it for fun? Or is the freeware simply a guise to trick you into opening your computer up to a virus or spyware?
Take the steps above before you download, advises Lordan. "Protect yourself by having tools on your computer in case you do inadvertently download something suspicious.”
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