Anti-virus protection: the case for paid vs. free

Clarifying your anti-virus choices: for an apples-to-apples comparison of 16 consumer anti-virus  products click here.

By Byron Acohido, USA TODAY, P3B, Sept. 22, 2010

With cyberattacks saturating the Internet, a dramatic shift is underway in the $7 billion-a-year anti-virus industry — and it’s all good news for consumers.

There’s no excuse anymore not to have anti-virus protection on your PC. You can get basic free protection from Microsoft with few hassles. Or you can opt for more robust protection — also at no cost — from a half-dozen reputable anti-virus makers. You need only endure marketing pitches to upgrade to their respective flagship products.

Spend a few pennies a day and you can step up to a very powerful anti-virus suite, available from a slew of established software security companies. Spurred by the rise of no-cost alternatives, Symantec, McAfee, Trend Micro and others are revving up their AV software suites, making them stronger, smarter and less demanding of your PC’s resources.

“We’re seeing a wonderful thing,” says Jay Foley, executive director of the non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center. “More companies are coming out with free software, and at the same time the established players are coming out with more vibrant products that give the home user or small-business owner greater protections.”

No-cost basic protection is fast catching on. A recent Morgan Stanley survey of 2,500 U.S. consumers showed 46% of the respondents used free anti-virus products. This trend is expected to continue as more frugal-minded consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world recognize the need to protect their Internet-connected PCs.

Over time, this trend seems sure to dampen cybercriminals’ ready access to PCs that have no protection at all, cybersecurity experts say. Today, an estimated 40% to 60% of PCs go unprotected. These are the easiest fresh machines for cybergangs to infect, steal data from and use to carry out online scams.

“The immediate benefit of free consumer offerings is that more network-connected machines worldwide are getting active protection,” says Neil MacDonald, privacy and risk research fellow at Gartner Information Security.

Is ‘free’ protection enough?


The rise of free has also lit a fire under the anti-virus giants. They’ve begun stepping up marketing campaigns to convey why full AV suites, priced from $30 to $80 for a year’s worth of continuously updated protection, are well worth the money.

“Freeware vendors have created a false perception that free, basic security is enough to protect you from today’s online threats,” says Janice Chaffin, president of Symantec’s consumer business unit. “The reality is, free is not enough. It’s like wearing a light windbreaker in a snowstorm.”

A USA TODAY survey of 16 anti-virus companies shows that no-cost anti-virus programs generally lack important features such as a firewall, website health checks, automatic updates and customer support. Meanwhile, full, subscription AV suites continue to get more powerful each year.

Symantec, McAfee and most others, for instance, incorporate technology designed to predict, rather than react to, new attacks. Panda Security and Trend Micro are leaders in using “cloud” computing to deliver protection. They’ve transferred the intensive processing required to identify and block attacks off of the user’s PC and onto their own servers.

“Vendors are improving and enhancing the breadth and depth of the security offerings they hope we will pay for,” says Keith Weiss, Morgan Stanley anti-virus industry analyst.

Marketing muddle

Any lack of public understanding about this trend derives in no small part from the intensely competitive nature of the anti-virus industry. Microsoft stands alone in making basic protection entirely gratis. After years of trying, the software giant bailed out of trying to make a profit selling security to consumers. A year ago it launched Microsoft Security Essentials, mainly to protect the reputation of the Windows operating system, as well as to boost overall confidence in the Internet.

Study the marketing messages from all other anti-virus suppliers, and you can land in a muddle. Avast, Avira, AVG, Immunet, Panda Security and PC Tools offer reputable no-cost protection. Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro preload free trial versions of their AV suites onto new Windows PCs. Kaspersky, Webroot and Trend Micro can be found on the shelves at major U.S. retailers. And every anti-virus supplier relies to one degree or another on Internet promotions.

The common denominator: Each promotion — whether it be for a free basic version or free trial period or a free infection scan — seeks to convert users to a paid subscription.

The stakes are high. Consumers and companies this year will spend $7.2 billion on anti-virus software, up from $5.8 billion in 2007, Gartner says. Marketing pitches to get a piece of this lucrative pie run the gamut, from clear and straightforward to persistent and confusing, USA TODAY’s survey found.

“It seems contradictory,” says Chris Benham, chief marketing officer at Webroot. “You’re in the business of trying to keep insidious software off people’s computers, yet you’re engaging in underhanded tactics.”

Complicating matters, a thriving “scareware” criminal industry revolves around mimicking free infection scans of your PC, a promotional tool used by legitimate AV vendors. The bogus scans typically arrive in an unsolicited pop-up ad and attempt to frighten the victim into spending $30 to $80 for a worthless cleanup.

One cybergang, operating out of Ohio and the Ukraine, banked $163 million from 2004 to mid-2008 pitching scareware. The FBI broke up that gang, but others like it continue to thrive.

“The malware writers and hackers have really muddied the waters,” says Rick Carlson, president of Panda Security’s U.S. division.

Between aggressive promotions and criminal mimicry, anti-virus marketing messages “have gotten so complicated that consumers are at a loss to try to figure out whether they are protected at all,” says David Perry, Trend Micro’s global education director.

Homework required

Cashen doing homework

The upshot for consumers: Be prepared to do your homework. Start with the assumptions that free protection is better than none at all, and that no single security product will keep you completely immune to cyberattacks. That’s what Mickey Cashen did last spring upon discovering that an intruder had accessed his older Windows XP computer to send e-mail spam to his friends, despite running an updated anti-virus program.

The retired high school science teacher from Brooklyn Park, Md., estimates that he spent 50 hours over the next six months researching and evaluating security products. Cashen read product reviews in PC Magazine, PC World and on CNet and scoured lab tests by and, two independent tech security research groups.

He decided not to spend a penny, opting for free Avira AntiVir Personal for basic protection, combined with a free firewall from Comodo.

He also began using WinPatrol, a free program that blocks unauthorized additions to his PC’s start-up sequence — a technique hackers use to re-infect your PC each time you boot up. And he relies on not one but three free Web browser plug-ins — AVG LinkScanner, McAfee SiteAdvisor and KeyScrambler — to help steer him clear of infected Web pages.

“I learned that multiple layers of protection are preferred,” says Cashen. “I ended up very satisfied with what I think is a small fortress.”


Anti-virus company executives, as you might expect, hope Cashen is the exception and not the rule. “There are users out there who think they can cobble together their own protection,” says Trend Micro’s Perry. “But the best thing for most people to do is install a single manufacturer’s all-in-one protection.”

Even so, simple economics suggest the popularity of free security tools will continue to soar among those on tight budgets: citizens of Third World nations, college students, the unemployed, the underemployed and retirees, like Cashen. What’s more, word-of-mouth is a powerful no-cost marketing tool.

“Many consumers rely on the advice of others, and some of the free products have loyal and vocal followers,” says Randy Abrams, director of technical education at anti-virus firm ESET.

Abrams and other anti-virus company executives interviewed as part of USA TODAY’s survey hold a consensus view of how they believe the anti-virus market is likely to evolve.

As cyberattacks continue to spread, they see more computer users recognizing the need to protect their PCs. While many will gravitate to free protection, some will eventually convert to a paid subscription for a cutting-edge AV suite.

“Think of it as an insurance policy for your digital life,” says Webroot’s Benham. “As you put more personal information on your computer, you’ll want more protection.”

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