Home Office: Spyware Primer

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I don't know about you, but I'm really angry.

I'm ticked that we're all wasting too dang much time fighting with spyware and adware, scanning for viruses and Trojan horses, and hassling with pop-ups and banner ads. I'm exhausted worrying about Windows updates and hot fixes, and plum worn out fielding questions about--and fiddling with--Microsoft's new Service Pack 2.

In this and a few subsequent columns, I'll continue with my rant. And no one's immune from my wrath: I'm irritated by Roxio, Symantec, Yahoogroups, and Zone Labs. And did I mention Microsoft yet?

This week and next, it's spyware and adware: what it is, why you should care, and when it's not a big deal. Then I'll tell you how I try to prevent and identify it, and eventually remove it.

Dig This: Here's a cool Flash game that challenges your ability to remember sounds from old arcade games. You'll hear favorites such as Defender, Joust, Pacman, and others.

Spyware Ins and Outs

Spyware comes in a few flavors. I see them all as programs working in the background, doing something to your PC behind your back and in the shadows.

Some products are benign in the sense that they don't do any specific damage to your PC, but direct info about you to a third party. Other products might be feeding the sites you visit with specific ads. If you have one or two of these floating around, you might not even know they're there unless you run an antispyware program.

The problem is that you may have a dozen or more of these parasites on your PC. These pests congest a PC by adding files and folders, cookies, DLLs, and Registry entries. This combination gobbles up online bandwidth and computer resources, and they all ultimately put a strain on your CPU. And the more spyware you have loaded and running, the more complicated and difficult it becomes to remove them.

I'm annoyed with benign spyware because it has a cumulative negative effect on my system. But I get angry as I go up the food chain to programs that can do some serious damage.

Some Nasty Malware

Whazit Hijack is a good example of damaging spyware. The cretin who tricks you into loading Whazit gets paid a small fee--maybe a dime--from affiliate sites every time the spyware is loaded on a machine. Whazit uses an ActiveX drive-by method: When you visit a site, a small program is downloaded onto your system behind the scenes. The program adds seven DLLs and roughly 11 entries to your Registry. It can then modify your browser in a few ways by, say, changing your search page, adding a search bar, directing you to specific sites, zapping you with pop-ups, or by hijacking and changing your home page. It's not just the havoc it can cause that bugs me; it's also the hours I have to spend putting things back in order.

For more on Whazit, go to Allentech Total Technology Support, DoxDesk.com, and Spyware-Guide.com.

Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules defining exactly where the border is between benign and malicious spyware. For me, that's immaterial: It all needs to be removed.

Dig This: This small Flash animation is not only too cute, but it's also an example of some amazing coding. Move your mouse around the cat's belly. Then slide (don't click) the cursor around the cat's head. Cool, no? [Thanks, Barry.]

Where Shouldn't I Go Browsing?

One answer is obvious: sleazy sites. I know you won't be shocked to hear that people visit adult, X-rated, and porno sites. You may not go to sites like that, but I'll bet you've visited sites that have a mix of funny videos, many with off-color, risqué, or even soft-porn content. I know I have (oh, don't furrow your brow like that) and it's my best guess these sites are chock full of malevolent spyware. But while you're more exposed at these risky sites, you can also pick up spyware at run-of-the-mill sites.

The key is guarding yourself from attack; I'll talk about this in more detail next week. And if you are infected, you need to know which tools to use to rid yourself of the pests.

I don't want to leave you hanging, so for now, I want you to learn about blocking ActiveX programs. PC World columnist Andy Brandt, one of our resident spyware experts, spends a good deal of time showing you how to adjust your browser's settings for maximum protection. His article, "Security Tips: Keep Viruses, Worms, and Spyware Off Your PC," is easy to follow and I encourage you to read it thoroughly.

A little older, but still valuable, is Andy's "Privacy Watch" column dealing with Spybot Search & Destroy, an antispyware program.

I recently did a print column--"A Two-Pronged Spyware Defense"--where I talked about good spyware-fighting products, including Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy.

I'll rant more next week; and I'll tell you about my favorite tools (in addition to Ad-Aware and Spybot), how to differentiate between conflicting spyware-removal tools, and the best places to go for help removing the junk.

In addition to writing PC World's Home Office column, Steve Bass is the author of "PC Annoyances." Sign up to have Steve Bass's Home Office Newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Steve Bass can be reached on his mostly spyware-free PC by e-mail.
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