All About Spywares



Spyware

Introduction
What is spyware?
Where does spyware come from?
How do I know if my computer is infected?
How can I get rid of spyware?
How can I protect myself?

 

Spyware is an increasingly significant problem for many of our customers. Panicware’s Pop-Up Stopper® blocks Internet pop-ups and Windows Messenger Service ads, but it does not block spyware-generated pop-ups. We wrote this article for three reasons.

  • To help explain why you still see pop-ups even when your Pop-Up Stopper product is running successfully.
  • To present information on what spyware is and why you should care about it.
  • To provide guidelines for preventing and eliminating spyware.

Whether you’re sick and tired of being interrupted by pop-ups, concerned about your privacy or both, read on to find out how to protect your computer and your personal information.

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What is spyware?

Spyware sends information from your computer to a third party, usually as part of an advertising-supported software product. Other terms used to describe this type of nuisance include adware, malware, keyloggers, phishing attacks and snoopware. Each of these terms has a slightly different meaning, and in the absence of an official definition, even lawmakers are continually reworking the definition of spyware. Not all adware products are spying on you, and not all spyware pesters you with pop-up advertisements. However, the word “spyware” has become the generic term for all of the above.

Spyware makers usually want information about your surfing habits to better target pop-up advertisements toward your preferences. However, they could violate your privacy even further by transmitting your name, gender, age, address, passwords or any other personal information you have saved on your computer.

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Where does it come from?

There are three main techniques used to distribute spyware.

  • Adware is often bundled with free software. BonziBUDDY, DownloadPlus, GAIN, Gator eWallet, iMesh, Kazaa, Morpheus and Weather Bug are all examples of popular advertising-supported software. These programs require users to accept pop-up advertising as part of the service they provide. If you have installed one of these products, file-sharing software or other similar products, you may have unknowingly agreed to view pop-up ads.
  • Some Web sites require that you install an application before you use their site or in order to access their products. Have you ever visited a Web site and been prompted to install something? Some sites, usually ones that offer free products, use this method to trick users into downloading spyware.
  • Spyware makers also exploit security holes using viruses, fake e-mail messages, Trojan horses and ActiveX controls. Using anti-virus software, ignoring e-mail attachments from unknown senders and keeping your computer up to date with the latest security patches will mitigate this third risk.

More and more programs are distributing spyware using these methods. The presence of spyware or other adware is often not disclosed when you download or install software. If any information is disclosed, it is usually buried in an End User License Agreement (EULA). You may have missed a warning that spyware was being installed on your computer if you clicked “I Agree” during a download without reading exactly what you were agreeing to. If a child in your household has access to your computer, he or she could have downloaded spyware without your knowledge.

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How do I know if my computer is infected with spyware?

Any computer that has ever been connected to the Internet could potentially be infected with spyware. There are a number of ways it can impact your system, including the following:

  • Poor performance could indicate that your system’s resources are bogged down with running spyware. Take note if your computer is slow, crashing, freezing up or otherwise unstable.
  • Unwanted browser behavior could be a sign that your browser has been hijacked by spyware. The default page you see when you open a browser window has changed. You’re being redirected to search results on pages you don’t recognize. Your toolbar has been replaced with something you haven’t seen before.
  • Pop-ups when you aren’t on the Internet are another telltale sign. You’re getting pop-ups even with pop-up blocking software installed and running, or you’re seeing advertisements when not on the Internet.
  • Problems using secure Web sites are sometimes caused by spyware. You could have trouble logging into or using secure Web sites like WebMail, Outlook Express and WebCT.

Not necessarily all of these things will happen as a result of spyware. Your computer could be infected even if you’re only experiencing a single symptom. Even a machine that is running normally could be infected with spyware.

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How can I get rid of it?

Anti-virus software, firewalls and Internet pop-up blockers generally do not provide adequate protection from spyware once it’s on your machine. Once installed, spyware is typically hard to remove in its entirety and is sometimes automatically reinstalled. You should not attempt to remove spyware on your own. Using software designed for spyware removal will enable you to remove unwanted programs in their entirety and is safer than deleting files yourself.

You can combat spyware using free or paid for software available for download on the Internet. Spyware removal software will scan your computer for infected programs and help you remove them once they have been identified. Be sure to download only recommended spyware removal products. Many fake spyware removal programs exist to trick users into paying for ineffective software or even to install more spyware on their computer.

One of the most popular spyware removal products is free - Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware. If that doesn't rid your machine of spyware, another effective scanner recommended for advanced users is Bazooka™ Adware and Spyware Scanner. Always check to make sure you have the latest version, and if you have the option to do so, enable automatic updates for these products.

Also intended for advanced users, HijackThis created by Merijn Bellekom is yet another option for spyware removal. This free software product will expose all registry entries, browser add-ons, startup items, etc. You’ll recognize some of these items, while others may require some research to determine whether they’re programs you’ve installed or spyware that has been installed on your computer without your knowledge. Online spyware forums, like those hosted by Spyware Info and Computer Cops, can be a valuable resource when conducting this type of research. In extreme cases of spyware infection, a reformat of the hard drive done by either the user or a computer professional is recommended.

In most cases, removing spyware will cause whatever free software it came with to stop working. In order to use your computer without the annoyance of spyware-generated advertising, you may have to either live without the functionality of the software it came with or seek out alternatives.

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What can I do to prevent it from coming back? How can I protect myself?

There are a number of steps you can take to guard against spyware infections in addition to running the anti-spyware programs mentioned in the previous section.

  • Educate your friends and family about spyware. It won’t matter how well you protect your computer if someone else installs spyware when you aren’t there.
  • Pay attention to what you’re agreeing to when you download any software. This includes where the software is coming from and the contents of the End User License Agreement (EULA). Be especially wary of file-sharing programs and other free software. In general, be sure to download software from sources you know and trust. Always read the Privacy Policy of any Web site from which you are downloading software.
  • Ignore e-mail messages from senders you don’t recognize. The messages could be spam intended to install spyware on your computer. NEVER send sensitive personal information, passwords, social security number, credit card numbers, etc. via e-mail. Visit the Anti-Phishing Working Group’s Web site for information on the latest phishing attacks.
  • Clean up after yourself. Keeping your machine clean will limit the amount of information available to spyware should it make its way onto your system. To do this, you can use certain features of Pop-Up Stopper Professional or Companion, or a special cleaning product like SureClean. You can also delete cookies and get rid of temporary Internet files using free features inherent in most browsers.
  • Keep your operating system (OS) and any applications on your computer up to date with the latest security patches. If you’re running the Microsoft Windows OS, enable automatic updates to receive the latest security patches as soon as they become available.
  • Most spyware is designed for Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer browser because the vast majority of computers use these technologies. Using an alternate OS or a different browser could decrease your risk.

Rest assured, by paying careful attention to what you are downloading, educating others and using the right combination of applications, you can be safe surfing the Internet!

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