Very often I'm called upon to troubleshoot PCs belonging to friends and relatives. While poking around for problems, I almost always encounter the same oddity: a Web browser packed with toolbars. Sometimes I'll find two or three of them, sometimes even more.
Maybe it's a Yahoo toolbar -- for someone who's not a Yahoo user. Maybe it's a security toolbar from the likes of McAfee -- even though the user runs Norton anti-virus. Very often it's some weird shopping or promotional toolbar I've never heard of.
Invariably I ask the question: "Where did these come from?" The response is always the same: "I don't know."
Psst. I know. Most likely, those toolbars came from you.
Well, okay, you didn't write the code, but there's a very good chance you allowed them to be add to your browser. That's because software developers often sneak toolbars into their installers, and users often click right past the option to opt out.
For example, I recently had to update my Java installation, a hassle that happens so often, when the time comes that I can't take the nagging any longer, I usually just click through the installation as quickly as possible.
Ah, but my keen eye noticed that Java wanted to install the Ask Toolbar along the way (and make it my default search tool!). It was simple enough to clear the checkbox and bypass installing Ask, but for someone who isn't paying close attention or doesn't know any better, bam: new toolbar. Bad Java. Bad! I noticed something very similar recently when test-driving a Slimware utility.
The problem with all these toolbars is they slow down your browser, add clutter to your screen, and even increase the risk of virus and spyware infections. (That said, some toolbars are the result of spyware, so it's not always the user's fault.)
The moral of the story: When you install a new program, especially if it's freeware or shareware, don't just blindly click through each page of its installer. Take your time, and make sure you're not inadvertently agreeing to install a toolbar.
Contributing Editor Rick Broida writes about business and consumer technology. Ask for help with your PC hassles at firstname.lastname@example.org, or try the treasure trove of helpful folks in the PC World Community Forums. Sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week.