No, we don’t really mean that. We use software that we download from the Internet all the time. But, and here’s the important point, we’re very, very careful.
In the real world, at least here in our nice, civilized, safe corner of the real world, the number of people you meet in daily life who are actively trying to steal stuff from you is genuinely and thankfully very small. On the Internet, not so much.
Here’s a typical story: Your computer contracts a virus, as happens from time to time, even when you have up-to-date anti-virus software and a properly configured firewall. The virus makes your computer slow, or behave badly. You browse the Internet, looking for solutions. You find ads, on reasonably respectable websites, for free software to “optimize” or “fix the health of” your computer or even to remove viruses. Feeling desperate, you download one and install one. That does not do the trick. You find another…. Now, your computer is really and truly … toast.
Another typical story: You are browsing the internet, and have landed on what appears to be a respectable website. You see a sober, respectable ad for a free computer tune up or clean up or similar. You think, “why not?” You click on the ad, give it permission to run on your computer. Again, your computer is now … toast.
What’s the lesson? Do not download or install software unless you know it is good. If you do not know the software is good, then you should assume that it is bad. And be very, very wary about clicking on ads. In this area, paranoia is the only appropriate stance — the Internet really is out to get you.
So how do you identify good software? Well, you ask knowledgeable people. You do research on the web, hunting for independent reviews of the software in question. If you can’t find any, do not use the software. If you find yourself stuck on a web page or in a pop-up ad where it appears that the only way to get out is to click OK, don’t! Instead, close your web browser. Turn off your computer if you must, but do not install that software!
Another word of warning: even when you have found a recommendation for some good, useful software, be sure that you download your copy from the right place. As an example, Malwarebytes is a really nice, useful piece of anti-virus software. Although this is no longer true, there was a period of several months when, if you searched for “malwarebytes” on Google, the first search result was a link to a fake version of Malwarebytes, in short, another virus.
Finally, even when you download software from an otherwise respectable source, like, say, download.cnet.com, or java.com, to pick a couple of non-random examples, the software you want may come packaged with additional software that you do not want — not dangerous, but very annoying. When you install the software, don’t blindly keep hitting “Next.” Instead, read each screen that you see, and be sure to UN-check the boxes next to the unwanted stuff.
So what software do we use, and where do we get it from? For a partial answer about software, see our separate article on Recommended Free Software, which is incomplete and not updated as often as it should be, but is at least not actively evil. For the second, our current favorite is ninite.com. Ninite hosts a nicely curated selection of useful free software from around the web, and packages it up in an easy-to-install form, without adware. If we can’t get it from Ninite, we try to download software directly from the author’s website, and only get it elsewhere if the author sends us there (although we still try to avoid download.cnet.com when we can).
There’s lots of good, useful stuff on the Internet. But you really do have to be paranoid about taking advantage of it.
P.S. There are several popular scams that have been going on for a while. Someone calls you on the phone (or sometimes sends you an email), claims to be from Microsoft (or similar) and that they have detected that your computer has a problem. Just hang up. Or shame them (we always ask if their mothers know they are doing this for a living), then hang up. Even if your computer does have a problem, these people will only make it worse. Or, to put it another way, hang up!