Given the state of the economy, many small and mid-sized businesses and small office, home office (SOHO) workers might be tempted to trim essential services, such as anti-virus and anti-spyware protection, firewall, spam detection, and offsite back-up.

The question isn’t whether or not you can afford security software -- rather, it’s can you afford not to? Don’t fret, there is an alternative.

Free software exists

Rather than putting your company’s data at risk by not doing anything at all, consider a handful of downloadable tools that offer protection for your PC, without costing your company a dime.

“Free is the best four-letter word in the English language" for small and mid-sized businesses, says Steve Hilton, vice president for small and mid-sized business and enterprise research at the Boston, Mass.-based Yankee Group. “Try out free solutions and talk with someone who's already used the product to avoid any gotchas.”

What “gotchas,” you ask? Hilton says free software is free for a reason. “The vendor might support the free product, hoping you’ll upgrade to the pay-version, or some vendors rely on ad-sponsored revenues to support free products.” But in some cases the software might conflict with your operating systems or applications on your PC, adds Hilton. “Therefore, the best idea is to work with your tech advisor or IT department to make sure you won't have any unfortunate surprises, because free software often doesn't come with vendor-provided tech support.”

Not everyone believes these free options are a good idea for your business. “While most of these tools, such as free anti-malware, are very good for consumers I don’t think they are a good idea" for businesses, says Peter Firstbrook, research director for information, security and privacy at Gartner, a Stamford, Conn.- headquartered technology market research firm. “They key requirement for business is centralized management and reporting and that is absent from these tools,” explains Firstbrook, and “in some solutions commercial use is specifically prohibited by the license agreement.”

Recommended freebies 

Anti-virus software is important to safeguard your PC from the latest threats out there in cyberspace, which usually make their way into your e-mail inbox. Without anti-virus detection, all it takes is for you or an employee to click on an attachment, such as an .exe file, causing an immediate infection and perhaps propagating itself through your contacts list (and yes, your clients and customers will just love that). On a related note, spyware refers to other “malware” (malicious software) that can do everything from slow down your PC and spy on your Internet surfing behavior to causing inappropriate pop-up ads and hijacking your browser’s home page or toolbar.

Some of the anti-virus software programs experts recommend include the award-winning AVG Free and Avast!, while competent anti-spyware tools include Windows Defender and Ad-Aware 2008 Free.

On a related note, make sure you have a powerful firewall and intrusion detection to protect your PC from predators, such as Personal Firewall by Sunbelt or Comodo Firewall.

Online storage

Backing up important files is critical -- but saving them to a local external hard drive, USB thumb-stick, or recordable DVD means they’re still vulnerable to theft, fire, or flood. It’s no wonder, then, why many companies prefer to upload data to a secure offsite location. An added advantage to these online back-up and storage solutions is the ability to access those files anywhere in the world you’ve got an Internet connection.

While some services let you back a couple of gigabytes for free, such as MozyHome, Microsoft gives you up to 5GB of free storage per month with its Windows Live SkyDrive. All that’s required to use this password-protected virtual drive is a Windows Live I.D. (a Hotmail e-mail address will do). And if you need to send large files to someone -- such as sending a huge PDF to a coworker or client -- you can set up a separate folder on Windows Live SkyDrive only for shared files.

Spam protection

Spam, or unsolicited junk mail, isn’t just a productivity drain as you and your employees can spend hours deleting these unwanted messages per week, but often they contain viruses, spyware, or phishing attempts that try to lure you to authentic-looking websites to steal your identity for financial gain.

If you use Microsoft Outlook, however, a free plug-in program called SPAMfighter dramatically reduces the amount of junk mail you get by segregating suspicious messages and dropping it into a folder. It catches quite a bit (with few “false positives,” meaning it thinks mail is spam when it’s not) and doesn’t slow down your PC.

A word of warning: while free, SPAMfighter adds a “signature” to the end of your outgoing e-mails that is meant to spread the word about the software (and no, you can’t remove it), plus the company hopes you’ll upgrade to the paid version with additional bells and whistles.