Malware is a real and present danger on the Mac. Is it time to install anti-virus software?

It's a question we're getting asked with increasing frequency. As the Mac's popularity continues to grow and security stories makes headlines, both real and imagined, it's something more and more Mac owners start thinking about. That's the focus of this week's Mac Help column.

S.B. writes:

Is BitDefender any good?

The Mac isn't subject to the same sort of malware and virus problems as Windows, but that doesn't mean we're off the hook. As I've said before, Macs can get malware and adware just like Windows PCs can. Part of the problem comes when people indiscriminately download software from the Internet.

BitDefender is one of a number of commercial anti-virus software packages that works on the Mac which detects and eliminates malware when it finds it. Other commercial packages include Intego Mac Internet Security and Kaspersky Internet Security for Mac.

You can get protection for your Mac even without spending money. The free app ClamXav (which encourages you to donate if you find it useful) can also eliminate malware and adware on your Mac. For adware specifically, I've had very good luck with AdwareMedic. Like ClamXav, it's free, though the developer encourages you to donate if you find it useful.

You can certainly take precautions to keep your Mac from getting problems with adware and malware, like making sure to use trusted sources to download software for your Mac like the Mac App Store.

You can also make sure to keep your Mac's Gatekeeper security settings configured to only trust software from signed Apple developers. That will minimize the likelihood that you'll launch an application that can cause security problems on your Mac.

Do you need anti-malware software on your Mac?

That depends entirely on how you use it. For many of us who rely on the Mac App Store and Gatekeeper security, an extra security app isn't especially necessary. But if you download software off the Internet without knowing where it's coming from, or if you start seeing your web browser or other software working in ways you don't anticipate, like opening up strange web sites, Mac security software can give you peace of mind you won't have otherwise.

What's more, the free and donationware stuff I've mentioned (ClamXav and AdwareMedic) doesn't mess up the regular operation of your Mac — just run it when you want to check things out.

Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes. The more precautions you take and the better security practices you engage in, the fewer problems you're likely to have.