The lure of free anti-virus software is powerful. Many companies such as Norton and McAfee offer free versions of their pro products, but AVG was the first to offer a free version of their software over 10 years ago. The software can be free indefinitely or free for only a trial period, often lasting 14 to 30 days. These free versions are generally stripped down and limited in features and options. In the case of 14 or 30 day trial software, you have access to all the options and features for the duration of the trial. After that, the software is downgraded.
Free anti-virus software looks like a real bargain. In fact, I’m willing to bet that many of you are using it right now. However, it is possible that you switch to a paid version. There is a hidden cost to using such software. Before we examine the hidden costs I’m going to list those features that are commonly reserved for paying customers:
- Link checking
- Email protection
- Personal data protection
- Automatic and frequent updates
- Complete and timely tech support
- Automatic scanning for threats
- Automatic scanning of removable storage
The above list is a composite list. I examined many of the leading anti-virus software maker’s websites to generate that list so be aware that your options may vary. Now, let’s examine the list in detail.
Pro anti-virus software interrogates each webpage before it loads in your browser. If it discovers suspect code it stops the page from opening. Free versions often leave you to fend for yourself.
Link checking also takes place in your inbox. Links in emails are scanned for malicious content, and built-in email rules stop viruses from ever reaching your inbox. Free versions don’t perform thorough email protection, potentially leaving a hole in your protection.
Personal Data Protection
Cybercriminals make money by stealing and selling your personal data. Many free anti-virus software will only provide limited protection, where pro versions provide users with proactive protection by blocking unauthorized outside connections to your computer.
Automatic and Frequent Updates
Pro versions of anti-virus software update several times per day, even up to once (or more) per hour. Free versions either require you to manually perform the updates or updates are performed automatically but infrequently. You are less protected that way, and the downloads are quite large resulting in long waits.
Timely Tech Support
Pro versions offer you telephone support, or at least a response via email that is measured in hours, not days. If you are using the free version, you’ll still get help. Just not right away, and you may have to visit a forum to get answers.
Automatic Scanning for Threats
Anti-virus software should sit in the background and watch over your shoulder as you work, much like a bodyguard. Just as a bodyguard will spring into action even before you realize there is danger, your antivirus software should neutralize threats as soon as they are found. Free versions require you to manually start the scans – you aren’t constantly protected.
Automatic Scanning of Removable Storage
Attacks can come from anywhere. Flash drives are those little dongles that have taken the place of 3.5″ floppies and are used to carry data from one computer to another. Pro versions of anti-virus software will begin a scan as soon as a flash drive is inserted into the computer, looking for any harmful software and stopping it in its tracks. Free versions require you to manually scan the flash drive. Forgetting to manually start a scan could lead to your computer getting infected.
Free anti-virus software has a hidden cost and it is expensive once you add it up. First, many of the free versions just aren’t as robust and feature filled as the pro versions, leaving you without comprehensive protection. Secondly, you have to invest a lot more time into the free versions, doing chores such as:
- Manually scanning for threats as you work on the web throughout the day
- Remembering to update the database several times, daily
- Searching for your own answers, or waiting for email replies while malicious software is infecting your computer
- Scanning those portable flash drives that can also carry harmful code
Forgetting to do any of the above chores could potentially leave you open and vulnerable to attack. It is possible that you switch to a paid version of anti-virus software to protect yourself and your sensitive data from online threats.