If you're going to use social media, use protection
Some of the most devious intrusions occur through social media, and most security suites now include social media safeguards of some sort. Bitdefender's Safego, a free Facebook app, scans your News Feed for malicious links and phishing attempts; if it finds something nasty, it even helps you warn your Friends.
Most security suites include some form of child protection software, too, but Microsoft itself has been offering top-notch parental controls since the days of Vista. Windows 8 bakes the feature in (to reach it, choose Control Panel > User Accounts and Family Safety > Family Safety), but you'll have to download the Windows Essentials software package if your PC runs Windows 7 or Vista. Once your kids are set up, Microsoft's Family Safety website is the go-to resource for managing your settings.
Tracking your stolen laptop
What if your laptop winds up—gasp—pilfered? The (mostly) free and open-source Prey can increase your odds of retrieving it and frustrating the thief.
Once installed, Prey lurks in the background, sipping system resources and staying hidden. But when you activate the software from afar, using the Prey website, it starts sending frequent updates detailing your notebook's whereabouts, including screenshots of what it's being used for and even snapshots from the PC's webcam to help you I.D. the sticky-fingered perp. If you want to intervene more directly, you can remotely lock your computer.
Prey is available for Windows, OS X, iOS, Ubuntu Linux, other Linux distros, and Android. And if you're concerned about prying eyes peering into your files, you can easily encrypt your hard drive using TrueCrypt.
A few other tools can help keep your PC buttoned up nice and tight. The superb Sandboxie runs software virtually, thereby isolating it from the rest of your system--a useful failsafe for programs that could be malicious. Qualsys BrowserCheck ensures that your plug-ins are up to date, kind of like Secunia PSI for your browser. CCleaner mimics the auto-tuning tools in premium security suites and keeps your PC running lean and mean. And Belarc Advisor scans your system to provide a high-level (albeit techie-oriented) view of your PC's potential security holes.
As you can see, protecting your PC with gratis tools is definitely possible. That's not to say premium security software is useless, however. Free programs don't offer the seamless across-the-board coverage of their for-pay counterparts, and free software typically offers no customer support beyond user-manned forums. In addition, premium security software tends to achieve slightly better detection rates than free antimalware programs.
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