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How Free is Free?

Our phones make noise when they ‘ring’. It’s not actually a ringing sound anymore, but there’s no better phrase to describe what happens. Most modern smartphones include a veritable plethora of selectable beeps, tweets, chirps, and short musical clips referred to as ringtones. We grow tired of the standard equipment: we prefer more choices. We go online to search for downloadable bits of software that can be installed on our devices to make new and unique sounds.

Our phones should reflect our personalities. Many phone models offer customizable screens, customizable buttons, and even customizable cases. There’s no reason why our ringtones should not be as flexible. To that end, we search endlessly for ringtone downloads, hopefully free, that will allow us to express ourselves. It’s fun to search, but be careful!

What is the price of a free download?

Sometimes a download is just a download. On the other hand, grabbing a file from a web site may being along unexpected baggage. Commonly accepted computer wisdom indicates that malware, spyware, and viruses are often transferred to home computers through casual downloads. Unscrupulous web entrepreneurs scheme to send seemingly harmless files to unsuspecting users: those file may contain payloads of undesirable add-ons. Certainly, not all ringtone downloads are harmful, but it never hurts to be careful. If it’s labeled as “free”, there may be a price that doesn’t include financial considerations.

Is this download actually free?

We took a close look at one ringtone download. The file, called RingtoneMakerSetup.exe, is offered from a web site called apps.foxtab.com/ringtonemaker. We downloaded the file at no charge by clicking on a link. The file may be available on other sites as well.

So far, so good. We took a close look at the downloaded file. For better or worse, the file is executable. In other words, it may be a ringtone, but in order to find out we will need to give it control of our computer just like any other software application.

We submitted our downloaded file to AdAware. It passed.
We submitted our downloaded file to AdAware. It passed.

We take a close look at the free download

Our initial concern is over any other ‘features’ that may be included in this gratis file. An executable file is not human-readable: it’s written in computer code. There’s no way to visually examine the contents of the binary code to look for possible problems.

We decided to ask a few experts to take a look at the guts of the thing. First, we submitted the file to AdAware, a wildly popular anti-spyware utility that also can be downloaded at no cost. We’ve used AdAware for years as a tool for detecting and removing undesirable programs from windows-based computers. We trust it.

AdAware found no problems with the file. In other words, the AdAware filters and algorithms did not detect any potentially damaging software that might be installed if we executed the program. That’s a good thing, but we decided to go a little further.

Windows Defender approved of our download.
Windows Defender approved of our download.

We check with Windows Defender

Windows Defender is a free program available for the Microsoft Windows 7 operating system. It provides some level of virus protection and detection. We wanted to know if our downloaded file contained anything beyond free access to ringtones. According to the most current version of Windows Defender, our file was ‘clean.’ That’s also good news. It’s not a guarantee, but so far we have submitted our program to two mainstream anti-malware detectors and both utilities have pronounced it mostly harmless.

Kapersky Labs approved of our downloaded file.
Kapersky Labs approved of our downloaded file.

Checking in with Kapersky

Another mainstream anti-virus utility is offered by Kapersky Labs. They provide a downloadable program that installs locally on a Windows-based computer. They also implemented a free upload feature on their web site: users can send them executable files which will be scanned at no charge in real time. This no-cost service is limited to small files (less than 1 MB), but our file is well below the limit.

We uploaded our executable file to Kapersky. It was pronounced virus-free by their systems.

Conclusion

Our downloaded file probably contains no undesirable spyware, viruses, or malware. There’s no possible way to be absolutely sure, but we ran it past three reputable scanners and it came back clean each time. Keep in mind that spyware mutates regularly: our file could very well contain a little bit of nasty that is so new as to be unrecognizable. Tomorrow a new version of AdAware, Windows Defender, or Kapersky Labs software may very well pronounce our file to be undesirable.

Any download, whether free or not, is a risk. Accepting a file from an unknown web site and executing it on a home computer may cause undesirable results including loss of data and complete system failure. Ringtones may not be worth the trouble. Be careful.

Another consideration: the same file name on a different web site may produce completely different results. Our particular file is exactly 445,952 bytes long and is labeled by the distributor as version 1.0.0.9. Your mileage may vary.


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