These days it may seem as though the short list of unavoidable perils ought to be expanded to include death, taxes, and spyware. But if you ever do get infected with some nasty piece of malware, all you need to get rid of it are the right free tools, some time, and a little know-how.
A couple of warnings first: Removing spyware is as much art as it is science. The rogues who create spyware make removing their malicious programs as difficult as they can. In addition, some types of spyware download and install additional components, often hiding pieces of code from Windows to make removal even harder. The instructions below will wipe out most forms of spyware, but your machine's infestation may resist these measures. If so, you may have to consult a professional PC repair person. Or you can start afresh by reformatting your hard drive and then reloading Windows, your apps, and your data files (browse to our article "Windows Rejuvenated" for instructions).
Note too that if you perform certain removal steps improperly, your PC could become inoperable. Our instructions call out these danger spots, but if you don't feel confident about performing them, ask for help from a knowledgeable friend or from the experts on a spyware-removal Web forum such as TomCoyote, Geeks to Go, or SpywareInfo.
Make Sure It's an Infection
How do you know whether your PC has an active spyware infestation? Slower-than-normal performance is the most common symptom people report, but such behavior can also be due to any number of factors unrelated to spyware, such as running too many applications with too little system memory, having a full or very fragmented hard drive, or running buggy software that fails to free up the memory it uses after you close the application. Your first task is to determine whether you have a spyware-related problem or just a slow machine.
Download the latest versions of these tools:
- Microsoft's Malicious Software Removal Tool. This program is updated monthly, so always download the latest version before you use it.
- Microsoft's Windows Defender. Windows Vista has Defender built-in, but if you suspect that you have spyware on your PC, update the program so it can find the newest bad stuff.
- Avira Antivir PersonalEdition Classic, a free antivirus program--if you don't already have up-to-date antivirus software.
Since some spyware applications prevent you from downloading these tools, or from visiting the Web sites that host them, download the programs to another PC that you know is free of spyware. Then copy the installers to a portable USB drive, and plug that drive into the machine you suspect is infected.
Start by running the Malicious Software Removal Tool. This program is designed to search for and destroy only a small fraction of malware, but the ones it finds are the most serious strains of spyware and virus you can get.
If that program doesn't find anything, run the installer for Windows Defender (if it isn't already installed on your PC) and make sure that the program downloads its updates. Then click the downward-pointing arrow to the right of the word 'Scan' at the top of the Defender window and choose Full Scan. If Defender finds malware, follow the on-screen instructions to delete the harmful files. This may require one or more reboots, because some spyware won't let you uninstall it while Windows is running.
If Defender fails to find anything, or if it finds spyware that it can't delete, it's time for a full antivirus scan. If you're using an antivirus program that is already loaded on your system, make sure that it's updated. If you're using AntiVir, run the installer, and then reboot. When AntiVir is running, you'll see an icon in your system tray showing an open umbrella inside a red square. Right-click the icon and choose Start AntiVir. Click the Start Update link in AntiVir's program window, and when the update is complete, click the Scanner tab, choose the Local Drives option in the lower pane, and press the <F3> key to begin scanning your hard drive. If it finds anything, AntiVir will pop up a dialog box. Select either Quarantine or Delete to remove the suspect files that it identifies.