You've almost certainly encountered the ads: A dialog box pops up on your system, bearing the message "Warning! Your computer may be infected with spyware" and suggesting that you scan your computer immediately. Click it, and you often reach a Web site providing a "free spyware scanner" that finds all sorts of malware on your PC--and then offers to sell you software that will clean it all up.
Should you buy these products? Based on our tests, our opinion is no. Following complaints from several PC World readers, we tested seven heavily advertised spyware-removal tools-- MyNetProtector, NoAdware, PAL Spyware Remover, SpyAssault, SpyBlocs, Spyware Stormer, and XoftSpy--and found that none were as effective as reputable free products such as Spybot Search & Destroy. A couple even installed new spyware.
While bills addressing spyware work their way through Congress, spyware-removal marketing has already caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. In October the FTC filed suit against Sanford Wallace--a former self-styled spam king--Seismic Entertainment, and Smartbot.net, saying that they took advantage of browser security holes to plant code that displayed ads promoting, among other products, their own $30 spyware remover (variously called Spy Wiper or Spy Deleter). The FTC is asking Seismic to return any "ill-gotten gains" to its customers.
These advertising tactics don't sit well with Eric L. Howes, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign library science graduate student who analyzes anti-spyware utilities for SpywareWarrior.com. The volunteer-run site is associated with the Alliance of Security Analysis Professionals, a network of organizations that dole out free advice about security, including info about spyware and spyware-removal programs. (Howes himself is not a member of ASAP.)
Howes says that the ads for some spyware-removal applications suggest that they have scanned your PC and found spyware when in fact they "just plain haven't done any scans whatsoever."
Leighann Smith, a homemaker from Independence, Kentucky, was among those who complained to us. She bought NoAdware hoping it would address her computer's spyware symptoms, including crashing and a home page that kept changing to child porn sites.
NoAdware "removed some stuff, but it also deleted something on the hard drive so the computer couldn't reboot," Smith says. After reinstalling Windows, Smith sent multiple messages to NoAdware requesting a refund, which she received four months after her initial request.