How to Download Without Installing Malware

Paul Lilly

A how to download PSA

When the **** did it become so damn difficult to download a program from the Internet? If you've recently tried to grab a screensaver or software utility from the web, you know exactly what we're talking about. Somewhere along the way, the simple act of downloading a program has become anything but easy, even for Internet veterans who aren't easily duped. Many download sites are now designed to test the wits of savvy users and prey on the impatient with link landmines that will blow up your browser with toolbars and other unwanted add-ons. Even worse, you could end up with a malware infection. Should you give up?...

Hell no! Downloading might not be as simple as it once was, but it's far from an impossible mission, convoluted download portals be damned. We'll show you how to wade through the sea of shady links and track down the program you're looking, but it doesn't end there. You also have to be careful when installing an application, as installers sometimes carry adware, especially ones for free programs.

Free download links are often plastered with malicious links and adware

To Click or Not to Click the Big Green Download Button?

When we posted our " 20 Awesome Screensavers " article with download links to each screensaver, some readers thought we screwed the pooch and served up malware infected URLs. Rest assured we verified that every screensaver we posted was clean, but actually downloading each one can be an exercise in frustration. Let's walk through the process of downloading "The Matrix" screensaver.

The link we provided jettisons readers to where the screensaver is hosted on CNET's website . Here's what you should see when you navigate there:

CNET's is a popular website so you might not think twice about clicking the Download Now button, but take a closer look.

The fine print indirectly admits to installing adware.

If you hover your mouse over the button, you'll discover CNET is using an ad-supported wrapper. Not all downloads on CNET's website use the ad-supported stub installer, but the ones that do are indentified as such (so long as you're paying attention), both on the green Download button ("CNET Installer Enabled") and via the above pop-up box.

Downloading and installing looks so simple and easy but it's often anything but.

If you choose to proceed, you'll be presented with several attempts like the one shown above to install third-party software in addition to The Matrix screensaver. Simply click the Decline button to skip these offers one-by-one rather than mashing the oh-so-inviting Accept button. If you learned anything at all from mythology, it's that you should avoid being tempted by Sirens, and download sites serve up plenty of them.

Do you really want to install random third party apps?

Some screens are a little trickier than others and offer only two options:

  1. Full Installation (Recommended)
  2. Custom Installation (Advanced User)

When you encounter one of these screens, check the Custom Installation radio button and then deselect any checkboxes asking if you want to install toolbars or other cruft.

The legitimate download button is often the hardest one to find.

If this seems like an unnecessarily long path to the end, that's because it is. Instead of jumping through CNET's third-party hoops, an easier way to grab The Matrix (and similar downloads) is to click on the direct download situated just below the download button. Easy cheesy, right?

This particular link has SEVEN download buttons. Which one is the legitimate one?

Lest anyone think we're picking on CNET , it's actually not that bad compared to plenty of other download sites that make things much harder than they need to be. It's certainly not uncommon to see adware/malware masquerading as legitimate download links. Some are worse than others. In the screenshot above, there are no less than seven links with the words "download" or "driver," but only one of them actually links to the file we're looking for. How can you tell? Once again, hover your mouse over each button/link and see where it points to. If it's a DoubleClick ad or anything similar, then move on to the next one. In this case, the second download button with a right-facing arrow directs us to a URL with the words "ARCHOS-101-XS-Tablet-Firmware-412-Download" contained within. That's the one we're looking for.

Scan for Malware is a great tool for sussing out malware

Once you've finally found and downloaded the file you're looking for, be sure to scan it for malware, especially if you grabbed it from a site you've never heard of. Use any on-demand scanners you have installed (such as a daily AV program and/or Malewarebytes), and also upload the file to VirusTotal , a free cloud-based service that analyzes suspicious files and URLs for dirty code.

Using Virustotal is extremely easy, especially with a browser extension

If you're a Firefox user, we highly recommend installing VTzilla , an official VirusTotal browser extension. The extension adds a toolbar to Firefox, which you can disable if you prefer, as well as a right-click context menu entry to scan hyperlinks with VirusTotal before visiting the site in question.

For further virus protection measures, check out our in-depth virus protection guide. Do you know of any safe downloading tips? Have a downloading horror story to tell?  Share them with us and other Maximum PC readers by posting in the comments section below!

Around the web