We've already shown you that you don't need to pay for Windows security, but today we're going to take a closer look at protecting yourself from drive-by malware that infects you by simply visiting the wrong web site.
Naturally, everything in the last article still applies, and you should definitely give it a read through if you haven't already; paying special attention to keeping your PC updated is the main key to protecting yourself against drive-by malware.
What Is Drive-By Malware?
Drive-by malware infects your computer by exploiting a vulnerability in your browser, browser plug-ins, or by opening a file in a hidden frame and exploiting a security hole in an application like Adobe Reader. Think you only browse safe sites? They've also been known to hijack advertisements on popular sites. We'll take a quick tour through some of the best ways to protect yourself.
Readers should note that we're assuming that you're already using an antivirus application — if you aren't, check out the five best antivirus applications.
Disable, Kill or Uninstall Adobe Reader
Adobe reader is a security hole waiting to happen — even if you try your best to keep the software updated, you're still at risk for the latest vulnerabilities if you allow it to open PDFs in your web browser. Your best bet is to get rid of Adobe Reader entirely and switch to a better alternative, but if you prefer Reader you should force Firefox to download all PDF files and open them separately. Head into the Preferences and find Internet on the left-hand menu, then uncheck the "Display PDF in browser" option on the right. This should prevent Reader from automatically opening in the browser without your consent.
Next you'll need to head into Firefox Options -> Applications, and look for the PDF file item in the list — if it doesn't exist, that's fine. If it does, change the value to Always ask or Save File instead.
If you're using Internet Explorer, you might want to head into Tools -> Manage Addons and disable the Adobe PDF Link helper as well.
FlashBlock Disables Annoying Animations, Protects You
Not only does the excellent FlashBlock extension help get rid of the web's biggest annoyances, but it also prevents you from being immediately vulnerable to the many security holes repeatedly found in Adobe Flash. In my experience, this extension helps Firefox run more smoothly and take longer to reach the "reboot needed" point — it's a must-have. Google Chrome users can also block Flash with a user script, and IE users can use Toggle Flash to turn the extension on or off.
Disable ALL Unnecessary Plug-ins
On my Firefox installation, the only plug-in that I have enabled is Adobe Flash, and I'm using Flashblock to make sure that it only runs when I tell it to. Why? The vast majority of the web sites that I visit use Flash, but very few of them use Java, Silverlight and none of them need the .NET Framework Assistant — there's no reason to keep all of these plug-ins enabled when what we really want is a nice trim Firefox install. Just head into Tools -> Add-ons, head to the Plugins tab, and start disabling everything else that you don't use.
If you are using Internet Explorer instead, you can open up Tools -> Manage Add-ons and start disabling toolbars and plugins that you really don't need running.
Just make sure to change the Show drop-down to "Add add-ons" so you can see everything that is enabled, rather than just the add-ons that are currently loaded. This will let you find a lot of extra stuff that you didn't realise was there.
Keep Your System Updated
We already mentioned in our last rant on keeping your system secure, but we're going to tell you again: Keeping your system updated is the most important factor in protecting yourself against drive-by malware that exploits unpatched security holes. Make sure to use Windows Update to keep your base system patched, and then use one of the best software update tools to make sure that your applications are also updated.
Serious Security: Use a Virtual Machine
If you spend a lot of time browsing questionable websites and downloading files on P2P networks, you should consider using a virtual machine like VirtualBox to do your dirty work in. If your virtual machine goes up in smoke, your primary PC will stay nice and safe. This is also a great way to test out software that you really aren't sure about, and it's the way that we do our testing over at How-To Geek HQ for applications we're writing about. If a virtual machine isn't your style, you can also virtualise just your applications and safely test new software with an application like Sandboxie, which will run your applications in a "sandbox" to protect the rest of your PC from a questionable application.
How do you protect yourself from drive-by malware attacks and keep your system secure? Share your methods in the comments.