Fake programs claim to remove spyware

Problem has grown fast in recent months

August 10, 2004|By Lou Dolinar | Lou Dolinar,NEWSDAY

It's bad enough that spyware and adware are infecting millions of home computers. Now come fake programs that claim to remove these pests for a fee but don't.

"It has been a big problem this year," says Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which has been lobbying Congress and the Federal Trade Commission for action.

Heavily promoted on most search engines, these rogue programs lure users with "free" scans. Want to remove the "spyware"? Buy the full version for $29.95. A handful of these programs install their favored brands of adware and spyware.

The problem has been around for a while, but in recent months it has grown so bad that it has become far easier to fall for bogus products than to find the real thing, said Eric L. Howes, a university of Illinois graduate student who runs the definitive Web site to evaluate bogus spyware eliminators (www.spywarewarrior.com/rogue_anti-spyware.htm).

His site lists more than 75 such programs, with new ones every day. There are even phony "review" sites that rate bogus programs, and either ignore or downgrade the legitimate ones.

Howes said the authors of these programs try to mimic the name or home page of one of the top two legitimate anti-spyware programs - Spybot Search and Destroy (www.security.kolla.de), and Ad-aware (www.lavasoftusa.com). They also use "index spam" to manipulate Google and other search engines and push their products to top rankings.

"With all these programs using Spybot and Ad-Aware in their domain names, the confusion can be hilarious," Howes said. In one case, he said, a newspaper columnist pointed readers to a bogus site.

The typical hysterical pitch by a dubious vendor lets you download a program for free, then scans your hard drive for problem software. Invariably, it finds at least a dozen, or even hundreds of files that represent "severe" infections. To get rid of them, however, you have to pay by credit card.

Spybot and Ad-Aware, on the other hand, have versions that are free. Highly regarded Pest Patrol (www.pestpatrol.com) offers a 30-day trial of a fully functional version before you buy.

The sales pitch for anti-spyware often implies that your PC is leaking information to the Internet. It typically includes information about your computer's disk directories, for example, or the screen resolutions.

A lot of it is hard to fathom, says David Stang, chief technical officer of Pest Patrol, the best-selling commercial anti-spyware program.

Rogue anti-spyware "detects some spyware but not much. A lot of these guys are at 10 [percent) or 20 percent."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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