Outsmarting Spyware

By Rick Crume Premium

My sister’s computer was possessed. Pop-ups filled the screen, flashing dire warnings such as “Security Alert. Windows has detected 10 spyware programs running on your computer. Click here to remove them.”

Though the warnings looked official, the computer could have suffered major damage had I fallen for these devious entreaties. As I closed windows, more popped up, turning the screen into a game of Whack-a Mole. Worst of all, some windows refused to close, making it impossible to access the Web sites we wanted to visit.

Prolific pop-ups signal a spyware or adware infection. These programs sneak onto your computer and collect information about you, mostly for advertising purposes. Spyware can record keystrokes, passwords and browser history, and relay that data to its author without your knowledge. Adware works much the same way, and produces annoying pop-up ads as you surf the Net.

Other spyware symptoms are more subtle: New toolbars appear in Internet Explorer, even though you didn’t install them; your browser’s start page changes on its own; your computer runs very slowly.

So how do spyware and adware get onto your system? Sometimes these programs come bundled with other software, especially freeware and shareware used for online file-sharing. Before downloading any software, be sure to read the licensing agreement, which will tell you if another program comes with the main one.

You also can get spyware and adware through a “drive-by download.” Simply visit the wrong Web site, and you could end up with spyware or adware on your computer.

Lucky for Mac users, these pesky programs are uniquely PC problems. Although Macs can get viruses, they’re generally much more secure. If you use a PC, follow these five steps to rid your system of spyware and adware, and to avoid future infestations:

1. Install Windows XP Service Pack 2.

If your computer runs on Windows XP, this free upgrade from Windows Update <> provides better protection against spyware, and includes Popup Blocker for Internet Explorer. The service pack takes several hours to download with a dial-up Internet connection. You can order it for free on CD-ROM, but you’ll have to wait four to six weeks for delivery.

You also should set your computer to receive security and critical updates automatically while you’re connected to the Internet. Windows Update has instructions.

2. Configure Internet Explorer to resist spyware.

Disable two options in Internet Explorer so Web sites need your permission before installing software. Select Tools>Internet Options and click on the Advanced tab. Under Browsing, uncheck Enable Install on Demand (Internet Explorer) and Enable Install on Demand (Other). (Only the first option is available on version 5 or earlier.)Then click OK.

3. Install and run spyware-removal programs.

You’ll probably need a couple of programs to protect your computer from spyware. A combination of two free ones, Ad-Aware <> and Spybot Search & Destroy <>, will detect and remove most spyware and adware. Every week, you should check for updates and run both programs, one after the other.

If they miss anything, you might need another program, such as Spy Sweeper <>. Two spyware information sites, Spyware Guide <> and Pest Patrol’s Center for Pest Research <>, can help you determine which program you need to fight the pest that plagues you.

4. Install a pop-up blocker.

The Google Toolbar <> and Yahoo! Toolbar <> let you perform searches from any Web site; as a side benefit, they also block pop-ups. Both are free downloads.

5. Use a different Web browser.

Internet Explorer’s support for ActiveX technology (used to make the Web interactive) makes it particularly vulnerable to spyware. Other Web browsers lack that troublesome feature. Both Firefox <> and Opera <> are free, block pop-ups, and use tabs for easy switching between open Web pages. To get the version of Opera without banner ads, you’ll have to pay a fee.

My sister’s computer was so riddled with spyware that it seemed only an exorcism would rid it of its demons. But between the Windows updates and spyware-removal programs, we managed to retake control of the machine. If you use the Internet, it’s time to safeguard your computer from spyware, too.

From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine