The internet has become a very dangerous place. Viruses and trojan horses cling to email, files and even instant messages.

Sneaky spyware, nosy website cookies, and malicious code that hijacks computer systems threaten to expose your files and make you an unsuspecting accessory to attacks on large networks. There is a world of threats, assaults and nuisances ready to take advantage of unprotected PCs.

Don't believe it? Check out the Internet Storm Center and click the survival time link on the left navigation bar. According to real-time data captured by the SANS Institute, an unprotected PC connected to the internet will attract some sort of unwelcome advance within about 17 minutes.

To protect your PC against assault, you may find yourself deploying a confusing array of utilities. You need antivirus programs, spyware blockers, software firewalls, pop-up stoppers, and even content filters and cookie-cutting software. In fact, a typical user can end up installing so many different software blockers that it becomes hard to keep track of them all. How do you defend your system against assault without mucking it up with too much software?

Iain Hodgekins has asked himself that question. An IT manager for a manufacturing firm near Cleveland, Ohio, Hodgekins runs a personal website on a local server and often helps friends with their PC setups.

To protect his server and client systems, he's taken to employing an arsenal of freeware and shareware applications, including the free AVG Anti-Virus package from Grisoft. The downloadable utility provides effective virus protection and free automatic updates to keep virus profiles up to date--a feature that owners of Symantec Anti-Virus have to pay to use.

"It's got a free download feature but limited customisation of system scan scheduling," Hodgekins says. "It seems to be a touch slower than Norton [in getting virus updates]."

Hodgekins also uses the popular ZoneAlarm firewall application to prevent intrusions and to keep an eye on network access by installed applications, and the Google toolbar to block pop-up ads in Internet Explorer.

To keep a lid on behaviour-tracking cookies, Hodgekins installed SpywareBlaster 3.2, an application that prevents cookies from reporting your movements. It also prevents the installation of all sorts of nefarious programs, including browser hijacks, modem dialers and spyware.

Beyond being useful, these applications all share a common thread, says Hodgekins. "I use all these things because they are free. I have issues with paying for personal software," Hodgekins explains.

"Of course, the downside is you have four to seven third-party software installations trying to do similar functions. They can be a little difficult to set up, but once up and running, these all seem to do well."

Matt Neely, a security expert for a large financial firm, says that Hodgekins's a la carte approach offers the most complete and effective protection against sundry internet threats. But finding, downloading and installing half a dozen applications may not be the best option for everyone – particularly for less technical users. Not only is it more difficult to install multiple applications, but users must also keep tabs on all those programs.

"When something new comes out, like a new feature or virus type, you need to download the upgrade," says Neely. "With a lot of programs, when something works you are hesitant to upgrade them. But with these you need to, or you are going to miss a new threat that is coming out."

What's more, finding the best utility to download can be more than challenging – it can be downright dangerous. Witness the emergence of spyware programs that actually masquerade as anti-spyware utilities.

The Rogue/Suspect Anti-Spyware Products & Websites page offers up a long and troubling list of anti-spyware products that may, in fact, attack your PC.

Even if you go with a legitimate program, such as Lavasoft's Ad-Aware or Spybot Search & Destroy, the confusing and misleading names of malicious software can lure you into installing the wrong thing. Neely says he's heard of a spyware program with a name that's similar to Ad-Aware, designed to trick users into downloading the wrong software.

"With Ad-Aware, just make sure you get it from Lavasoft," Neely warns.