Is downloading free software safe?

Too good to be true?
Too good to be true?
Hemera/Thinkstock

It happens all the time. We're minding our own business, quietly scanning the Internet, only to be suddenly confronted with a pop-up urgently telling us that we must download free software to prevent World War III from happening on our computer (or maybe from just happening in general). We're confronted with an issue: Is this a serious warning, or is it just a company preying on our fears? Worse, is it actually a virus or malware in disguise?

Or here's another scenario. Say you've been struggling to transcribe recordings from meetings and you stumbled upon some terrific transcription software that's free and ready to use with a quick installation. It seems reputable, but how can you be sure?

Here's the bottom line: Free software on the Internet can be convenient, helpful -- and totally unreliable. Is there any way to ensure that the software you're downloading is safe?

While there's never a guarantee, there are a few tactics for making sure your computer isn't a playground for digital thugs. First off, you'll want to know what kind of software you're dealing with. Freeware is software that's entirely unrestricted for copying and downloading (but you wouldn't have access to the code, unlike open-source freeware). It can be offered by large commercial companies, too: think Microsoft's malware protection, which you can download directly from their site. Shareware is actually owned and maintained by a company or individual and usually requires payment after a trial period. (There are also updates and plug-ins, required by something like Adobe when software is updated.)

There are a lot of different software possibilities, and not all of them can easily be identified as safe. So let's explore free software further to get some hints -- and warnings -- about the freeware and shareware that might be too good to be true.

Is it safe?

For one, be realistic. A huge, well-known company is not setting up its customers to download viruses and bugs. If the software is coming from a company like Microsoft, it's probably going to be fine. Chances are, you're getting it from their direct site and you've sought it out.

Keep that in mind: Seeking out software is different than having a pop-up forcefully inform you that it's imperative you download a program ASAP. If you're being advised--without any solicitation--that you can hardly live without the program flashing on your screen, better avoid it.

While it sounds obvious, do your research! If a company called "Malevoware" is asking you to pretty please click the "accept" button on their popup so you can surf the web with ease, best you do some internet searching to see what people are saying about the company. Better yet, McAfee Secure has a Site Advisor search that allows you to search different sites to get a safety rating. If you're considering downloading freeware or shareware, just type in the domain and you can see how reliable it is. (And if it isn't, they'll let you know why.)

Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Before you set about downloading a free program, do yourself a favor and make sure you have backups of your hard drive or important documents -- a good practice in general.

We would be remiss to ignore another huge, lurking issue that could come with downloading software for free. If you're using BitTorrent or another program that shares pirated software or files, you're exposing yourself to enormous risk. Not only is it (obviously) illegal to download copyrighted software, but you simply can't practice the due diligence described above if you're downloading shared files from users with no trace.

So is downloading free software safe? It can be. But forget about blindly clicking and accepting when it comes to adding programs to your computer. A little research and a lot of caution will keep your computer safe in the end.

Author's Note

I've downloaded a handful of free programs, and although I've never had serious issue with them, I can't recommend it whole-heartedly unless you're working with a known entity. Researching found too many disaster stories of people who unwittingly downloaded malware or viruses, and the truth of the matter is that even with internet searches through McAfee or the like, you simply can't guarantee the safety of your programs. The most important lesson? If you're going to do it, do a thorough back-up first.

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Sources

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