Patience, basic toolkit, updates to security can block spyware

July 29, 2004|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

TIRED OF SPYWARE, adware and other slimeware that sneaks onto your computer, snoops while you surf the Web, steals personal information, hijacks your Web browser and slows your PC to a crawl? You don't have to put up with it.

With a basic toolkit and a lot of patience, you can get rid of most of these parasites and maybe keep them from coming back.

Before you start, look for help online. Spyware is so pervasive and annoying that a whole cottage industry of Web sites has grown up to help keep it in check. I'll be mentioning a lot of these resources here - you'll find direct links to all of them (and more that I didn't have room to mention) at www.balti moresun.com/spyware/.

That said, the best rule for fighting spyware is to keep out of harm's way. Here's how:

Keep your operating system updated. Microsoft releases security updates at least once a month. Surf to windowsup date.microsoft.com and download all updates labeled "Critical."

Steer clear of known sources of adware and spyware. File-sharing programs such as Kazaa, Grokster, LimeWire and BearShare are advertising-supported. They make their money by installing adware on your machine and charging advertisers to track your Web browsing and pop up targeted ads.

Save yourself grief by keeping them off your computer in the first place. If your kids insist, you can also look for spyware-free versions of file-sharing software that tap into the same file-sharing networks, such as Shareaza, Gnucleus, XoloXcq and Bearshare Lite. They're on a variety of download sites. Just realize that spyware can sneak in from the files the kids download, too.

Don't accept offers to download file-viewers, toolbars, cursor tools, form fillers or other programs that are supposed to enhance your Web-browsing experience. These are common on gaming and porn sites, but can crop up anywhere. With the exception of Adobe, Macromedia, Quicktime and a few other well-known add-ons, these are likely to be spyware traps. In fact, when one of these windows pops up, don't click on the decline button. Close the popup window by clicking on the "X" in the upper right corner.

Stay out of popup ads

As a corollary, never click anywhere inside a popup ad window - especially one that says your computer is infected and offers anti-spyware software. Clicking is often enough to download a nasty bug. Use the "X" in the upper right-hand corner to close the window. If there's no "X" in sight (a common tactic), hit ALT-F4 to close the window. And if that doesn't work, hit CTRL-ALT-DEL to bring up the Windows task manager and end your Internet Explorer session.

Install a popup ad stopper, which eliminates many opportunities to download spyware in the first place. Two with excellent pedigrees are included in the Google and Microsoft toolbars (exceptions to the no-toolbar rule). For links to others, as well as a nifty test of your own popup-stopper, visit www. popuptest.com.

Disable Windows Messenger. This shouldn't be confused with Microsoft's instant messaging program. It's an internal communications program used by system administrators and exploited by popup ad pushers. The quickest way to disable it is to download a program called ShootTheMessenger from Gibson Research.

Increase Internet Explorer's security settings. Click on Tools/Internet Options and select the Security tab. Click on the Internet Zone, then Custom Level. This displays an options list. In the section marked ActiveX, set Download signed ActiveX Controls to Prompt. Set Download unsigned ActiveX controls to Disable, and set Initialize and Script ActiveX Controls not marked as safe to Disable.

Browser switch

Consider switching to another Web browser, except when you're visiting a handful of sites that absolutely require Internet Explorer (IE) to function properly. Mozilla, Netscape and Opera are three good browsers that have far fewer security flaws than IE and won't conflict with it. You can download them free online.

Install a spyware blocker. Most spyware removers include software that tries to "inoculate" your computer against new threats by monitoring programs that install Browser Helper Objects (BHOs), download ActiveX Controls, or make specific changes in your Windows registry. If you use one of these programs, you should turn this protection on.

Although it won't remove existing spyware, one of the best standalone blockers is Javacool's free SpywareBlaster, or its more aggressive cousin, SpywareGuard.

Even with the best tools, removing spyware can be a long and frustrating process - particularly if your machine has multiple infections or you're running Windows XP with multiple users. Earthlink, the nationwide ISP, surveyed a million of its customers' PCs and found an average of 29 spyware components on each one.

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