I’ve made my opinion pretty clear on what I feel are the pros and cons of modern antivirus software. But even the best AV tools can’t be 100% perfect. So what if you get that file attachment and you want to be extra sure that it’s safe to open? Where can you go to get a second opinion? As it turns out, you can actually get about 70 second opinions – and all for free. Antivirus makers and security researchers have created a handy online scanning tool called VirusTotal that allows anyone to upload a single file to be scanned by dozens of antivirus tools all at once.
Sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not a purely altruistic endeavor. Uploading potentially malware-ridden files allows antivirus tool makers to vet and improve their products. It also gives security researches samples of known and even unknown malware variants to study. It’s truly a win-win. (It might even be a win-win-win, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)
But Wait, There’s More
VirusTotal has other useful features, too. Have you ever really needed to click on a web link, but were afraid that it might be luring you to a malicious website? VirusTotal can help you there, too. You can copy that link and paste it in their tool, and it will analyze the website for potential threats.
They have one other way to scan files. If you receive an attachment that you don’t even want to download without scanning, you can just forward that email directly to email@example.com. Be sure to edit the subject to include the word “SCAN”. It may take a little while, but you should eventually get a report back for the attached file. See details here.
A Couple Caveats
And one more interesting (and ironic) point… this tool is also helpful to the bad guys. They can use this same tool to test their malware and see how many of these scanning tools they can fool. New malware is created all the time. It’s a cat-and-mouse game between the good guys trying to defend us and the bad guys trying to get through those defenses.