Previously, we discussed viruses and how to protect your computer from the damage they can do. A virus is just one type of intrusion that computer users must guard against today. “Malware” also takes the form of “spyware” and “adware”.
Does your computer run much slower than when it was new? Does your computer’s monitor fill up with pop-up windows containing advertisements for diet pills, sex aids and lots of other junk? How about changes to your browser settings so your home page changes and will not change back? If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, then your computer has probably been infected with malware. If your computer has a super-fast processor, then you might not notice the slow down. However, if you have been using your computer without protection, rest assured it has very likely been compromised with spyware and adware.
Malware is a term computer security experts use to refer to all forms of malicious software. Just like viruses, you do not intentionally download spyware and adware programs to your computer and you do not deliberately open them. They install when you visit websites or when you download and install other software products. Malware programs can also be introduced to your computer when you install shareware [software that you try for free before buying] and freeware [software that is free].
One of the newest forms of malware is a “root kit”. This is a special program that can install on your computer’s hard drive and remain hidden from detection because it runs secretly underneath the computer’s operating system. Antivirus programs, anti-spyware, and anti-adware detection programs cannot find root kits.
Computer security firms are beginning to develop root-kit detection software, but these new detection systems are not yet very reliable, so even Microsoft’s own security engineers recently warned corporate security specialists that the only sure cure for a root-kit infection in the foreseeable future is to totally erase the hard drive and start over again.
What About Removing Malware?
Spyware and adware programs are less difficult to remove. Unlike legitimate programs, these malware programs do not appear in the list of installed programs in the Windows Add/Remove Programs section of the Control Panel. You need special help in removing these malware infections and will find out more about how to remove spyware and adware infections in the paragraphs to follow.
Spyware is software that performs certain tasks on your computer without your consent. For example, a spyware program can watch what you do on your computer and save the keystrokes you type to enter your bank account, credit card numbers and passwords. This is known as keylogging. Another “secret” task performed by spyware is tracking the types of websites you visit and sending this information to an advertisement agency.
Adware is any software that automatically displays advertising material stored on your hard drive or uses your Internet connection to download advertising materials to your computer. Adware is different from advertising-supported software, which displays ads within its own program’s windows while the program is being used. Advertising-supported software is not malicious, and you can choose to use it or uninstall it. The main difference here is that advertising-supported software is up-front about what it’s doing, while adware operates in the background, without your knowledge or consent.
How to Protect Against Spyware and Adware
Finding and removing adware and spyware infections requires special programs. Only recently have traditional antivirus vendors begun to offer their own products to deal with these other types of malware.
Check your current antivirus software to see if it includes features for finding and removing spyware and adware. If it does not, you can apply other solutions besides buying a replacement product from that vendor or buying stand-alone commercial products. Instead, download and install one of the safe products mentioned below. You can use more than one. Unlike antivirus software, running more than one anti-spyware or anti-adware solution is not likely to cause conflicts on your computer.
Be extra careful with software (especially banner ads) that tell you your system is infected and you need to install “XYZ” to fix the problem – while “diagnose for free, cure for a fee” is the model used by some perfectly legitimate (and well-reviewed) anti-spyware software publishers, it can also be a ploy to get you to install spyware on your system.
As always, use extreme caution when downloading any software you are not familiar with or that does not come recommended by a trusted source (Geeks.com, for example.)
Free Safe Solutions
One excellent source of spyware detection and removal is a toolbar provided by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or an Internet Web portal such as Yahoo.com. These providers offer toolbars, a special web browser add-on that adds more search options and other features. Some of these toolbars now include a web-based detection and removal program.
You must be connected to the Internet to use this malware detection solution.
Depending on whether you are using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser or the popular alternative Mozilla browser, Firefox, the tool bar will include a link to McAfee or Norton where you can run a scan of your computer.
Searching the Internet for “toolbars” will locate other web-based solutions from reputable vendors. Be sure to research them to make sure they offer the solution you are looking for.
Two excellent spyware and adware detection programs are available for free from the Internet. Both of these programs are updated regularly so they can find and remove the latest threats to your computer.
Ad-Aware SE Personal is well-known for performing comprehension checks for malware components and is very successful in removing them. It has several options for configuring how you use it.
Spybot-S&D performs very comprehensive search and destroy scans of your computer. It is very user friendly. You can select the types of files that you want to leave on your computer, such as cookies, which are often identified as “spyware components”, even though they are how your personalization settings are remembered for your favorite websites, among other things. Spybot S&D also can be set to immunize areas of the hard drive that are prone to infection from malware.
For best results, run both of these programs on alternating days. Run the web-based scans from the browser’s tool bar during computing sessions.
Acquiring malware protection is not the only thing you can do to remain safe from having your identity stolen on the Internet. Criminals abound on the Internet, just as they do in the physical world. However, they can reach many more potential victims through computers. No single anti-spyware and anti-adware program will find every instance of a malware infection. The combined effect of running multiple solutions, however, will result in trouble-free computing. Remember, the single best defense remains to compute safely and smartly by not installing every “cool, free application” you come across.