How to Protect Your Computer from Spyware and Adware
As if spam, viruses, and worms aren’t bad enough. Adware and spyware are here to sap the remaining life out of your productivity and privacy. Cookies are harmless in comparison!
Adware is software that displays advertisements on your computer. These are ads that inexplicably pop up on your display screen, even if you’re not browsing the Internet. Some companies provide “free” software in exchange for advertising on your display. It’s how they make their money.
Spyware is software that sends your personal information to a third party without your permission or knowledge. This can include information about Web sites you visit or something more sensitive like your user name and password. Unscrupulous companies often use this data to send you unsolicited targeted advertisements.
I’ve noticed more postings in the Microsoft Windows XP newsgroups about these threats. Many of the postings ask how they can tell if they have spyware on their systems and how to remove spyware if they find it. A small handful asks how to fix problems left over after removing spyware. I’m glad to see a lot of the advice offered from other enthusiasts and I’m going to share some of that advice with you in this month’s column.
Windows Media Player 9 Series Questions
Now I know that a small number of you think of Windows XP, Windows Media Player, or Windows Messenger as spyware. The reason I disagree is that Microsoft provides a good combination of privacy notice and choice to users regarding the use of Web services and the sharing of information. For example, when you first run Windows Media Player 9 Series, you’re given a chance to review the privacy options and make changes as you see fit. To further preserve your privacy, the default value of the player ID is set to “anonymous.”
Is Your PC Affected by Spyware?
The main problem that most people notice with either kind of program is that they cause performance issues with their computers. For example, Internet Explorer might not work properly any more, your computer might hang more frequently, or your computer might slow down significantly. Removing spyware successfully is difficult enough to make preventing it in the first place a priority.
Unauthorized adware and spyware usually install on your computer covertly by using one of two methods:
Once installed, spyware can transmit your personal information and download advertisements 24 hours a day. It can also hijack your browser settings, such as your home page or search page.
Protect against Spyware and Adware
Without help, you have no way to prevent adware or spyware. Old antivirus programs don’t even prevent adware, since they didn’t consider them viruses or worms. First, you usually give permission to install adware, although you do so unwittingly because adware and spyware pushers are deceptive. Second, adware doesn’t behave like a typical virus or worm. They don’t usually do actual damage to your computer, other than wrecking its performance, and they don’t spread themselves using your address book. (Although some kinds of adware can break your anti-spyware tools.)
Things are changing for the better, though. Most popular antivirus products now include adware and spyware scanning. For example, the latest versions of McAfee VirusScan, Norton AntiVirus 2004, and Trend Micro PC-Cillin 2004 now scan for some adware and spyware.
Also, some Internet service providers (ISPs) are introducing protection from adware and spyware. For example, America Online (AOL) announced in January spyware protection as an enhancement for AOL 9.0 Optimized. EarthLink also provides adware and spyware protection through the latest version of its software. Of course, to take advantage of the built-in protection that antivirus products and ISPs provide, you have to update to the latest versions, and keep the anti-spyware/adware signatures current.
Prevent Unwanted Installation
Companies pushing adware and spyware are relying on two things: your desire for free software and your gullibility. I’ve had two friends bring me their computers after they were seriously infected with adware. In one case, the culprit was my friend’s craving for free file-sharing software. His desktop was a mess with countless icons for programs that he downloaded from the Internet. I was aghast. What he didn’t realize is that he gave implicit permission to install adware. He knows better now.
My other friend isn’t a freeware glutton. Instead, she has a habit of clicking the Yes or OK buttons on every dialog box she sees. Even suspicious-looking dialog boxes that don’t pass close scrutiny. Of course, when a dialog box pops up asking if it’s OK to install a new program, she clicks the Yes button.
The lesson that you can learn from my friends will help you prevent the installation of most adware and spyware:
Figure 1: Only click Yes if you trust the publisher and want the software.
Spyware scanners and some virus scanners with spyware signatures can help combat spyware. However, the best strategy is to be discriminating about what you choose to download and install.
Check Your Computer
If you’re even thinking about scanning your computer for adware and spyware, then you’re probably experiencing some of the symptoms I described earlier in this article. Those include instability, performance problems, or possibly a hijacked Web browser.
There is software specifically designed for detecting spyware and adware, and helping you remove it. The one with which I’m most familiar is Ad-aware from Lavasoft. This is the program that I recommend to most of my friends. A freeware version is available for use by individuals at home. A commercial version is also available for use in corporate environments. A program like Ad-aware finds adware and spyware on your computer and then removes them.
You can find more adware and spyware removal tools at the Spyware Protection and Removal guide. This Web page includes links to popular spyware removal programs, as well as a number of useful articles. If you’re not going to use a popular program like Ad-aware, however, search Google Groups for the name of the program you do choose. Some spyware removal software can cause as many problems as it fixes, and you want to find out about these problems before using unproven software.
Tip: Malke, a Microsoft MVP, offers this tip in the Windows XP Newsgroups: “It’s best to run antivirus and spyware removal tools in Safe Mode.” This is because removal tools sometimes can’t remove spyware from your computer while it’s running.
Get More Help
The best place to ask questions about adware if you suspect your computer is infested is in the newsgroups. Specifically, the Windows XP Security and Administration and the Windows XP General newsgroups tend to be where most users post and answer these types of questions. Rather than wait for an answer to your question, however, I suggest that you search the Windows XP newsgroups at Google Groups.
When you do post your questions, make sure you give a thorough description of the symptoms you’re experiencing. The more information you give, the easier it will be for other people to help you. For example, you’ll want to describe your hardware configuration as much as possible. It is also important to describe any software that you’ve recently installed, since unwanted software often comes bundled with other applications. Be sure to describe any pop-up windows that have suddenly started appearing on your desktop and, if possible, include a screenshot of them.
Remember not to post anything in a newsgroup that you’d have a problem with millions of people seeing—particularly malicious people who would take advantage of personal information. So don’t provide account names, IP addresses, or passwords.
Even after posting your question, don’t be disappointed if someone tells you to run a scanner like Ad-aware. Generally, if you suspect that your computer is infested with adware or spyware, this is the best advice.
Expert Zone Columnist Jerry Honeycutt is a writer, speaker, and technologist who has written over 25 books, including Microsoft Windows XP Registry Guide (Microsoft Press, 2002). He frequently writes about customizing and deploying Windows XP.