Do I need anti-virus software?

Category: Viruses

I have an unorthodox strategy for dealing with computer viruses. It doesn't involve the use of firewalls or anti-virus software. But if everyone understood the simple virus safety tips I'll outline here, the virus writers would get very bored very quickly.

Sooner or later you WILL receive an email that contains a computer virus. Perhaps you got one today with M-y-D-o-o-m attached. But if you understand a few simple concepts about email and viruses, there is really nothing to worry about. I've been using email for twenty years, and I receive hundreds of messages daily. Even though I get viruses in my inbox every day, I've NEVER been affected by one.

If you take a few minutes to read and apply the following concepts to your own email handling, you can have the same protection and peace of mind without buying any expensive anti-virus software. (There ARE some good reasons for having anti-virus protection, and I'll mention those later.)


If you keep your web browser and email software updated, you CANNOT get a virus just by opening or reading your email. This is true even if your Cousin Vinny has a friend who swears it happened to his neighbor in a major city, and his wife was abducted in a mall parking lot. Many widespread virus hoaxes have circulated the Net for years, claiming that if you open an email with a certain Subject line, then untold horrors will beset your computer. It's just not true.

A virus cannot leap out of your inbox and infect your computer without some help from you! Here are some facts you should know:

+ Some emails have attached files, in addition to the message body

+ Email attachments can be good (photos, music) or bad (a virus)

+ It is safe to open and read the message body of ANY email, even if that email has an attached virus.

[ NOTE: Before you write to tell me that some viruses can be activated simply by opening an email, PLEASE remember I said "IF YOU KEEP YOUR BROWSER AND EMAIL SOFTWARE UPDATED." If you have an old, unpatched copy of Microsoft Outlook, then all bets are off. ]

In order for a computer virus to affect you, it requires some explicit action on your part. Let me explain with an analogy: Imagine someone has mailed you a loaded gun. You can't get hurt just by looking at your mailbox. You can't get hurt just by taking the package out of the mailbox. You CAN get shot if you take the gun out of the package, aim it at your head, and pull the trigger.


So what is the "explicit action" required to activate a virus that arrives in an email attachment? It's as simple as clicking on the attachment. Depending on your email program, this will either save the file to your hard disk or activate the virus immediately. It really is that simple... don't click on attachments and your inbox will be safe from computer viruses.

How can you tell the difference between good attachments and those that contain a virus? In some cases, you can't. Anti-virus software may help, but if the virus is very recent, your anti-virus package may not be able to detect it. Case in point: The recent S-o-B-i-g and M-y-D-o-o-m viruses infected thousands of computers worldwide in just a few hours, even though they had anti-virus software.

Here are some practical tips to help you decide whether or not to open an attachment:

+ If you get an email with an attachment from someone you don't know, delete it. You don't take candy from strangers, and you should behave the same with email attachments.

+ If you get an email with an attachment from a friend, don't assume it's harmless! Many viruses spread by automatically sending themselves to the addresses found in the victim's address book, and they often include something in the message body that looks like a personal message from your friend.

+ Unless you are very computer savvy, and you can tell for sure from the name of the attached file that it's not a virus, then CALL or EMAIL your friend and ask if they meant to send you an attachment.

+ If they say yes, AND they can explain what it is (photos of the family picnic, etc.) it should be safe to open the attachment.

+ If they say no, then obviously you should delete the message and let them know THEY might be infected with a virus. It's also quite likely that the virus didn't come from your friend at all. Many viruses spoof the "From" address in the emails they spew out, so it's hard to learn the true origin.

SEMI-TECHNICAL NOTE: Take care when checking the filename of an attachment as a guide to whether or not you should open it. The standard (bad) behavior of Windows is to hide the file extension (the last three characters) when filenames are displayed. Some virus writers take advantage of this and create files with names such as HAPPY.JPG.EXE, which will display as HAPPY.JPG. It appears to be a harmless JPG (photo) file, but is really a nasty virus.

To force Windows to display the entire filename, open My Computer then click on Tools/Folder Options/View (on some systems, click on View/Folder Options/View) then UNcheck the "Hide file extensions for known file types" option.


If you remember nothing else about computer viruses, try to keep these three facts in mind:

+ You can't get a virus just by reading your email.

+ A virus cannot attack without your help.

+ Never open an attachment unless you're sure it was sent on purpose, and the sender can explain what it is.


Am I saying that anti-virus software is useless? For many people, yes! If you follow the guidelines in this article, and you handle only attachments that contain photos, anti-virus software is a waste of money and can make your computer slower and less reliable.

If you deal with word processor files or spreadsheets, if you download software, use a "file-sharing" program such as Kazaa, your computer is shared by others (especially children) who are prone to clicking, opening or downloading almost anything, despite repeated warnings, threats and knuckle-whacking, or if you have a nagging suspicion that Cousin Vinny might be right after all... then you SHOULD use an anti-virus program.

I don't discount the fact that people do make mistakes. If using anti-virus software makes you feel safer, if you understand that it's not a GUARANTEE to keep you safe, if you don't mind spending the money, then maybe it's right for you. You can find a bunch of popular anti-virus packages here:

But be aware that it can only protect you from the viruses it KNOWS about. I've heard from LOTS of people who faithfully kept their anti-virus software updated, but they still got a virus because of careless email handling.

You should also check for email, browser and operating system software updates at least once a month. (If you use Windows, you should have Windows Update take care of this automatically.) Older versions may have security flaws that allow unauthorized access to your system. Here are some links that may help you to find new versions, upgrades or security patches:






Learn about computer virus myths, hoaxes, and urban legends at Rob Rosenberger's excellent site.

Try Trend Micro's Free Online Virus Scanner.

Symantec AV Center offers information on the lastest virus threats, removal tools, and a Virus Encyclopedia.

I understand that some people will disagree with my advice about the best way to protect yourself from computer viruses. But I believe that education is the key, rather than software that gives a false sense of security.

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Posted by on 30 May 2005

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Most recent comments on "Do I need anti-virus software?"

Posted by:

11 Sep 2005

I have had the same results with viruses. I have never had one just by doing what you suggest. I never open attachments from unknown sources and I always send a reply to any mail from unknowns asking who they are. Most of the time the 'reply to' address is a phony.

Posted by:

23 Jan 2006

I'm glad I stumbled across your commentary. I've been preaching the same thing to my company for 6 years with excellent succes. I was beginning to doubt my own advice after reading a recent article in PC Magezine that basically said that without a virus scanner you are going to be infected by a virus the second you connect your PC to the internet.

Use common sense, caution and Windows Updates and your PC will be virus free without having to add amazingly intrusive and buggy anti-virus software (aka Norton).

Posted by:

08 Mar 2006

Just came across this website. I too have/had antivirus software on our computer. Then all of a sudden our computer was getting real sluggish. It took nearly 30 minutes to an hour just to browse one website and then I had trouble upgrading virus definitions so I bought and tried to install a later version which didn't do so well because it wouldn't do anything(by the way, it was a Norton product as well as the first AV program). Now with no AV program, I'm done in less than 5 or so minutes instead of 30.

Posted by:

14 Jan 2007

I beg to disagree to what Wayne posted that having an Anti Virus Installed, computers are getting sluggish and took about 30 minutes to an hour just to browse one website. it might be your computer or some programs inside the system can cause that problems and not the Anti Virus Software Installed. I too have/had Norton Anti Virus on my PC and i've never had any problem with the so called virus from the internet. As long as your Anti Virus is updated, no Virus can attact you system without your knowledge.

Posted by:

14 Mar 2007

Thank you, thank you, for being there and doing what you do! I look forward to your newsletter every week and have gained much knowledge from it. Your software and comparisons have saved me money and have given me alternatives to lousy customer service like Norton’s. I have had more aggravation with their product then I like to think about and non-responsive customer service. I will never buy another Norton’s product again! I have finally given up and going to try the Shield anti virus. When I need something computer related my first stop is your web site!

Posted by:

30 Mar 2007

Thanks for your note. I got a McAfee licence from work and it slowed down my laptop and my home PC until they were virtually unusable. Symantec was a bit better, but I had to pay for it. I'm now anti-virus free for over 18 months, and no virus problems so far. I am concerned, because e-mail viruses are not the only sort of malware out there, so I use a FREE firewall (ZoneAlarm) and run a couple of FREE anti-spyware programs regularly(Ad-Aware and Spybot S&D). Works so far.

Posted by:

21 Apr 2007

Great column. I have to agree with Joe. I use Comodo (Free firewall) and three FREE anti-malware programs (Defender, Adaware, and SpybotS&D). No problems so far and my pc runs so much fatser.

Posted by:

14 Aug 2007

yeh i have comodo adaware spybot s'n'd and also security task manager and i never have had any problems (all fre btw)

Posted by:

14 Oct 2007



Posted by:

28 Jun 2009

I have been without anti virus /internet security software for 14 months and will continue without it. I have a 4 year old and 11 year old sons who use the computer for gaming, homework etc and my wife does the usual social networking sites and home shopping. To all those who say AV software doesn't slow down your machine, try browsing without it for a comparison.

Posted by:

17 Nov 2009

i need free anti virus in my computer how do i instore anti virus in my computer

Posted by:

15 Dec 2009

Hi Rob,

I was just wondering what you think about the rumours floating around the net at the moment that you can get a virus by simply visiting a site. Apparently hackers have worked out how to bypass you having to download the virus and run it. This seems a bit strange to me and in my opinion an untruth antivirus companies aren't acting quickly to correct as they're benifiting from it. It's been carefully phrased by Symantec that you can be at risk by visiting these sites which is true if you run any malwware, but they by no means state that you can be infected by simply clicking a link.

In my knowledge, it's true, a virus does need the users help to run. I'm also anti antivirus software and never use because I know how the internet works. What do you think?

EDITOR'S NOTE: There are some "drive-by download" situations where you can visit a website, and the page contains code that takes advantage of a flaw in the browser, to infect the machine without any user interaction. But to the best of my knowledge, if you stay current with your security patches, avoid the "dark side" of the Internet, and resist the temptation to click on every link that appears in your inbox, you should be safe.

Posted by:

25 Feb 2010

I have an older computer. Win xp ..sp 3..IE 8. Up to date. I only have 248 Ram of memory. Most v s requiements are 256 Ram. May be my problem. I'm way more ..than frustrated.. with virus scanners! I Can't tolerate the slow access any longer! All of the v s slow down my computer! I'm removing Norton 2010 (free with Comcast ISP). May work great with the newer computers..not cutting down the product in anyway. If the scanner isn't fool proof..Can't feel safe. If I can't get anything done. Can't have any fun! It has to go! Thanks so very much!

Posted by:

15 Jul 2010

for me the best anti-virus is Kaspersky. have no doubt to surf in internet because of Kaspersky. All the security of anti virus are here in Kaspersky.

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