Dec 10, 2007

How to Spot Spyware Without your Glasses

If you know anything about spyware and the problems it can cause for the average computer user, you've got a head start. But once you understand the dangers that spyware and adware programs pose to your computer and your personal information, what can you do to prevent it from interfering with your life?

The best thing anyone can do to adequately deal with spyware and adware is to be informed about the issue and proactive in dealing with it. For instance, knowing how to recognize a program as spyware, avoiding certain websites and guarding against malicious software from infesting your hard drive can take you a long way. When armed with the right knowledge you will be able to face the problem without so much worry and fear.

Nobody wants spyware tracking their every computer move, which is why individuals and companies that desire to do so are resorting to more underhanded and covert methods of spyware infection. And as the general computer user becomes more aware of the existence of spyware and adware, they have even more reason to use hidden tactics to achieve their objective and invade your privacy.

In the best case scenario spyware simply archives information related to your browsing habits while you're online and sends it back to a company that uses the information for advertising research. This type of spyware is commonly referred to as adware. It is not the most harmful form of spyware but can be a nuisance to eliminate and slows down even the fastest of computers.

In the worst case scenario, a keylogging program is installed on your personal computer to collect private information you don't want falling into the wrong hands passwords, online banking information, and anything else that you might type into your computer during the normal course of a day. This type of spyware can also track other aspects of computer usage including applications used, instant messenger conversations, hidden windows and mouse clicks.

These programs can infect your computer when you download free programs, so one effective way to avoid spyware is by keeping your system clear of excess junk. If you really don't need that free fishbowl screensaver, restrain yourself and stick with the ones you already have. Or opt for a high-quality screensaver that costs a little money but will save you a whole lot of frustration. In addition, staying away from freeware sites altogether is recommended because even if you don't download anything, many sites attach a cookie to your browser after you visit the website that will be used to track your movements online. Avoid questionable websites and you'll avoid this type of spyware.

Refrain from downloading files from other sources as well. For example, a spyware program can be downloaded through an e-greeting, email, by clicking on a pop-up, or through other sources. To avoid getting infected through a pop-up ad, do not click anywhere on the pop-up window. Instead, click the "X" located in the top right hand corner of the window to close the pop-up entirely. If there is no way to close the window, disconnect from the Internet and close your browser.

Another possible source of spyware infection is a browser toolbar. Many toolbars are set up to track your browsing habits and search queries in order to create targeted advertising. Toolbars can generate pop-ups and even display dynamic ads in the toolbar itself that are based on your interests, as suggested by your online activity. In fact, it may seem as if the websites you visit generate the pop-ups you see, but often these ads are actually produced by the hidden spyware and adware already present on your computer.

Unfortunately, you don't always have to make the first move to get spyware on your computer. Many people are careful to avoid downloading strange email attachments and stay away from questionable downloads altogether, but this is not enough. There are a growing number of spyware and adware programs on the Internet that specifically take advantage of Windows vulnerabilities to infect your system without your knowledge or consent. Known as a drive-by-download, this type of infection latches onto your computer while you're online. In this situation, a downloader Trojan is installed on your computer this program then downloads and executes files from certain locations online whenever your computer is connected to the Internet, all without your help. The downloaded files then display pop-up ads on your computer. The surefire way to avoid most of these programs is by keeping up with Windows security updates. Always install the updates when they are made available and you will be able to circumvent most adware problems that exploit the security holes in Windows.

In particular, rogue anti-spyware and registry cleaner programs are utilizing this type of technology to illicitly promote their products. Once the adware has been secretly installed on your computer, pop-up windows start appearing that are designed to scare you into downloading an anti-spyware or registry cleaner product. Specifically, a window might say you have a spyware threat on your computer and tries to convince you to download the company's anti-spyware software to rid your computer of the infection. As you might have already guessed, these claims are false most likely your computer is not infected with spyware (or only infected with the adware originating from the company attempting to sell you the anti-spyware product). Rogue anti-spyware programs are disguised as legitimate solutions for spyware dilemmas but are actually set up to deceive victims into purchasing a product to fix a problem that doesn't exist. If you don't want to be conned into buying a fake anti-spyware product, do not respond to this type of pop-up ad.

Signs of Infection

If you do have spyware on your PC you can usually recognize the signs without the "help" of a rogue anti-spyware program. For instance, too much spyware will bog down your system and cause your computer to run slowly. You will probably be overrun by an excess of pop-ups and fake alert messages. In addition, your homepage and list of favorites might suddenly change and reappear even after restoring the default. Other things to look out for:

  • A new browser toolbar emerges without your consent, which is impossible to remove
  • Every time you conduct an online search the results are redirected to an unfamiliar search engine
  • Unexplained calls to 900 numbers begin appearing on your phone bill
  • Any anti-spyware or security programs you do have installed stop working
  • Your modems send and receive lights blink continually even when you are not doing anything online

If you think you do have spyware on your system, the best way to avoid scam artists is to stick with well-known, expert-recommended anti-spyware/adware removal products. Some quick research will give you all the information you need to know about the subject. If you've never heard of the company before or suspect suspicious and overblown advertising techniques, stay away. And follow your instincts if you think a company doesn't appear professional or trustworthy walk away from the offer. There are several excellent anti-spyware programs available on the market that can help you elude the troubles associated with spyware.

By Katerina Mitrou

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