Home Office: A Two-Pronged Spyware Defense

Illustration: Mark Matcho
Why is my blood boiling? I just removed 20 spyware programs from my mother's computer. The insidious stuff slowed down her PC so badly I thought she had done a 386 retrograde.

So for my mom--and everyone else feeling vulnerable--I'll explain how I keep these creeps off my system, and how I find and zap the few that get through.

The best spyware defense is to keep the vermin off your PC in the first place. Before you download a program, browser toolbar, or ActiveX application (the kind that runs from the Web), enter its name in your favorite search engine to find out if it's spyware. You can enter the name in PestPatrol.com's encyclopedia of snoop apps.

For goodness' sake, use a firewall. It may spot a new type of spyware trying to phone home. For instance, Zone Labs' free ZoneAlarm firewall recently started kvetching, warning me that a file named "inetinfo.exe" wanted access to the Internet. I hadn't a clue what the program did (I know, you thought I knew everything). ZoneAlarm said it was benign, but I felt safer knowing that I had another layer of spyware security in place. Browse to PC World's Downloads page to get your copy of ZoneAlarm.

My favorite ounce of snoop prevention is SpywareBlaster, a free tool for Internet Explorer and Mozilla that changes your system (with your permission, of course) to block nefarious ActiveX downloads, Internet dialers, and adware. Go to Downloads for SpywareBlaster.

Another weapon for your spyware arsenal is CWShredder, which is designed specifically to remove CoolWebSearch, an insidious browser-hijacker spyware app that goes by a dozen names. Visit SpywareInfo for the download.

Even the most security-conscious PC users--me included--can end up with a hard drive full of spyware. After all, the programs are designed to install themselves without your knowledge. And they usually leave no telltale signs that they're running on your system, unless, as in my mom's case, the watchers interfere with the machine's performance.

Unlike a virus, which can delete some of your files or perform other nasty tricks, spyware doesn't cause your computer to melt down. Nevertheless, the trackers have no business being on your PC.

Two Free Spy-Catchers

The only two spyware-removal programs you need to consider are both free: Lavasoft's Ad-aware and Patrick M. Kolla's Spybot Search & Destroy, the latter our World Class winner. Spybot is my favorite for its speed and thoroughness. It automatically creates a System Restore point before fixing problems, and it lets you link to Windows' Scheduler to create timed scans. If you're a tinkerer, click Spybot's Tools button to find an array of utilities, including one for scouring your system of such Internet threats as ActiveX components, Browser Helper Objects, and Layered Service Provider drivers. Quick aside: Ad-aware features a free plug-in that will remove Windows' insistent Messenger program (not to be confused with the MSN Messenger IM client).

I found a slick trick for reducing the scan time in Ad-aware: Click the Settings icon (the gear in the toolbar on the top right), choose Click here to select drives + folders under Scan Settings, and make sure that your external drives are unchecked. (I also exclude two extra hard drives on my system from the scans because I don't use these devices to store any of my data files.) Click Proceed, and then make certain that both 'Scan within archives' and 'Skip non executable files' are unchecked.

I also speed up my scans by ignoring cookies: In Ad-aware, perform a scan, right-click in the 'Scanning results' window, choose Select all "Tracking Cookie" objects, right-click the results again, choose Add selection to ignore list, and click OK. In Spybot, choose Mode, Advanced mode (if it isn't already selected). Click Yes at the warning. Then select Settings from the tool panel on the left, and choose Ignore Cookies. Right-click the list of cookies on the right and choose Select all.

I'll be writing about more ways to protect yourself from spyware--including Registry hacks and online scanners--in an upcoming newsletter. Browse to PC World's Free Newsletters page to sign up.

Contributing Editor Steve Bass is the author of PC Annoyances, published by O'Reilly. Contact him at homeoffice@pcworld.com.
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