Nearly everyone with an Internet connection has heard of the terms "spyware" and "adware" and most have even had an encounter of some sort with it. Yet few know how to properly deal with it. No one installs such software intentionally, nor do most people want it. The big question is, how do we protect our computers from it? To answer this question, we must discuss what spyware and adware actually is, and how it gets installed in the first place.
Spyware and adware, defined in non-technical terms, are similar types of software that collect information about you or your computer usage habits for ill-conceived purposes of personal profit or gain. Sometimes this means deriving personal information (i.e. credit card numbers, social security numbers, user names and passwords, etc) for fraudulent use, but it often means monitoring your computer usage (types of programs you frequently use, web sites you frequently visit, the people you frequently e-mail, etc.) for purposes of marketing research & analysis (in other words, you become a statistic whether you want to or not). The adware then displays advertisements that are geared toward those habits.
So how do you know if your computer is infected with spyware or adware? Here are some of the classic symptoms:
Your computer is running significantly slower than normal
Pop-up ads appear out-of-the-blue, even when you are not browsing the Internet
Unusual hard drive or CPU activity (The LED (small green or amber light) on the front of the computer blinks erratically, while the hard drive inside the computer makes excessive "grinding" or "churning" noises)
Unusual Internet traffic (your dial-up, cable or DSL modem's activity LED, if equipped, is blinking rapidly, even when you're not browsing the Internet)
Unfortunately, even if your computer exhibits none of the symptoms, it still may be infected, particularly if you spend a lot of time on the Internet.
So how does the spyware or adware get installed? Sometimes malicious web sites will trick the user into installing their spyware by making it appear legitimate. When this occurs, often the user is presented with a pop-up of some sort that asks to install something. The best thing to do in this situation is to simply close the box without answering the question (click the X or hit Alt-F4).
There are other times, unfortunately, that spyware can slip onto your computer without your permission or knowledge.
Even if all traces of spyware are removed, however, there is no guarantee that it won't return to haunt your PC. In fact, it is highly unlikely that the spyware won't return.
Much of the spyware enters the computer through your Internet browser software by exploiting various security vulnerabilities.
In fact, many have criticized Microsoft for the plethora of documented security holes found in Internet Explorer. Microsoft has vowed to plug the holes with Internet Explorer 7, due to be released in the next year or two.
Unfortunately, IE 7 will only be available to Windows XP (Service Pack 2) users. If your computer is running Windows 95, 98, NT 4 (or earlier), or 2000, you're not eligible for the security fixes.
According to an editor at eWeek (a well-respected Ziff Davis technology publication), Microsoft's "Internet Explorer is too dangerous to keep using" and suggests users switch to open-source alternatives, like Mozilla Firefox (Internet) and Mozilla Thunderbird (e-mail).
Detection and removal of spyware and adware is fairly painless if you have the right tools for the job. Although there are commercial solutions (from Symantec, McAfee and Microsoft), there are many freeware versions that do just as well or better. Probably the most famous is Lavasoft's Ad-Aware (highly effective), which can be downloaded from www.lavasoft.com. Others can be found at www.download.com.
Have comments or suggestions for a weekly Tech Tips article? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.