Article for Website Compass magazine

The Spies Around Us
Protecting Yourself from Online Spies

If you think junk e-mail is the bane of your computing experience, count yourself among the lucky who have encountered the growing threat posed by malware.

Malware, which includes spyware and adware, is software employe by hackers, scam artists, and “entrepreneurs” to spy on your computing activities, commit fraud, and inundate you with spam and pop-up advertisements.

Like viruses, many of these maliciously constructed programs are annoying but essentially harmless. But at their worst, these programs can ruin you computing experience by grabbing contrl of your web browser. They can even be used to swipe personal information from your computer.

How bad is the problem? Wired News recently reported that malware issues account for more than 12 percent of technical support calls to Dell Computer’s consumer hardware division. The report also cites a Microsoft claim that half of all computer crashes reported by customers are malware related.

What is Malware?
Spyware is unintentionally downloaded software that monitors your computing activities. It can be employed by hackers to steal personal information, such as credit card numbers, or used by companies to gather customer information.

Although not as invasive as spyware, adware often goes beyond accepted e-commerce practices and gathers information about your activities to generate targeted online advertising (spam and pop-up ads). Malware, derived from “malicious software,” is a general term used to describe viruses, Trojan horses, and other unwanted software that attack your computer.

Spyware and adware programs will try to infect your computer without your knowledge. They do so by semi-secretly bundling their programs with free software programs you choose to download from the Internet. No one would intentionally download these programs, so the spyware/adware is bundled with a free, useful program. This practice is especially prevalent with file-sharing software, common to many music-swapping applications.

Here’s how it typically works:

You click to install a free program. An End User License Agreement (EULA) appears. You click “Agree” (without reading the agreement) to begin the downloading process. The free program is installed but so is the spyware. The reason? The EULA contains verbiage giving the spyware or adware author permission to download software along with the free program. This “permission tactic” gives the spyware or adware authors a sense of legitimacy even though they know most people don’t read EULAs and would not otherwise agree to download the spyware.

Distribution of malware through executable files (files with an .EXE extension) attached to e-mail messages is also common. Say, for example, you receive an e-mail from a friend with an attachment featuring a dancing bear. Simply by opening the attachment, you may have just downloaded malware onto your computer as you watched Sasha boogie down.

More sinister hacker techniques include embedding malicious code into your browser when you visit a website or click on a pop-up ad. Exploiting security holes in older versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer is another popular tactic.

The Warning Signs
Now chat you’ve sufficiently been frightened, how can you tell if malware has infected your computer? Here are malware’s warning signs:

Bad browser. If your browser seems possessed, malware could be at work. Adware floods your screen with ad pop-ups and your home page unexpectedly changes (and is difficult to change back). Websites mysteriously appear on your Favorites list.

Spam flood. The amount of unsolicited e-mail unexpectedly spikes; messages are sent without your knowledge; e-mails are returned as undeliverable.

Slow going. Your computer, whether it’s online or offline, acts strangely and runs slowly. Your Internet connection slows to a crawl; programs open and close slowly or randomly with no explanation; the computer’s hard drive grinds when the computer is idle; strange icons appear in your Windows system tray.

Suspicious activity. Malware called “keyboard loggers” lets thieves monitor keystrokes and capture information, such as passwords and usernames. If you suspect someone is monitoring your online activity or see suspicious activity in online accounts, check your computer for malware.

With malware on the rise, computer users muse be proactive in stopping problems before they start.

Keep Your Computer Free Of Malware

1. The best medicine. Be wary when downloading software. Lists of malware-providing software can be found by searching the Web. The SuraSoft search engine is particularly helpful because it tells you which software is accompanied by malware.

2. The fine print. It’s painful, but read the software’s End User License Agreement. Search it for questionable phrases, such as “we may make your information available to third parties,” and “you agree to allow third-party software to be installed into your computer.”

3. Update Internet Explorer and Windows. Keep your browser and system software up-to-date by downloading the latest security patches available at Microsoft’s website.

4. Manual removal. You can try to eradicate malware with Windows’ Add/Remove Programs function. (Back-up important files first before attempting any manual removal procedures.) From the Start menu, select Settings, then Control Panel. Double-click the Add/Remove Programs icon to search for and remove the malware software.

5. Get some help. There are dozens ofanti-malware programs, many of which can be downloaded for free. Consult with your current ISP for their recommendation. Popular titles include AdAware, PestPatrol, and Spybot.