The biggest threat to your computer today

Spyware and Adware. You hear about these things almost daily. We have seen news reports on tv about them. Computing magazines such as PC World and PC Magazine have devoted entire issues to them. You undoubtedly have received some pop up ads stating that “you may be infected with spyware”. But what do you really know about spyware and adware? Are they the same thing? How do I get them? How dangerous are they? Hopefully we will answer all of your burning questions about spyware and adware in this article.

What is Spyware and Adware?

Spyware and Adware are basically the same thing – they are programs that get installed on your computer, either with or without your consent, with the purpose of gathering information about you and then selling that information to companies who typically use it for marketing purposes. The biggest difference between the two is that Adware usually includes an uninstaller for removal purposes that can be found the the Add/Remove Programs section in the control panel, but more on that later. For the rest of this article, we will refer to these programs only as spyware.

Spyware comes in three different classes – Tracking Cookies, Data Miners, and Malware. Let’s take a look at these classes one by one.

Tracking Cookies

Tracking cookies really don’t fit the classic definition of spyware, however since they are used to track your web surfing habits, most anti-spyware programs do identify tracking cookies as spyware and remove them. Cookies are small software programs that get placed on your computer from almost every website that you visit. They don’t take up much space, and are only active while you are on the particular website that installed them. Cookies are what keep you logged in to websites when you go page to page in a website, and automatically fill in forms and remember your preferences on that website. People who own websites, or webmasters, use cookies to help compile statistical data about their websites such as which pages in their site are viewed most often, where people go when they leave their website, what website led people to theirs, and much more. The data that is collected is not sold to advertisers, however since data is being collected tracking cookies are usually identified and removed by anti-spyware programs.

Data Miners

Data miners do just that – they mine your system for data. Data miners are the result of spyware programs that usually get installed without your permission and are constantly running in the background without your knowledge. Some of these programs use a large amount of your memory and processor, and can bring your system to a crawl. But what type of data do these programs collect? Just about everything you can imagine. These programs look at the programs you have on your computer and how often you use them, they can go through your address book and collect all of your email addresses, and they track your website surfing habits. All of this information is compiled into a profile about you. That profile is then sold to marketing companies who use the information collected about you to send you targeted advertising in the form of pop-up ads, spam, or physical junk mail. Another drawback to this class of spyware is it acts as a “breeder” for other forms of spyware. Once you are infected with this type of spyware, it won’t be long until additional types of data miners are installed on your system. Once you have several different types of data miners, your system will be bombarded by pop-up ads, and will be sluggish to say the least. At this point, a professional cleaning of your system is needed to remove the spyware and restore proper operation of your computer.


Malware is the most dangerous of the classes of spyware. Malware is a spyware program that has the specific intent of damaging your system or stealing you identity. This type of spyware acts more like a virus than spyware, and can actually install Trojan Horses, which are a form of viruses, in your system. In addition to installing Trojan Horses, we have seen malware disable cd players, add icons to your desktop, and change your web browsers home page. The most dangerous thing that malware has the ability to do is install what is called a key stroke logger. A key stroke logger is a Trojan Horse that records everything you type on your keyboard. This information is then collected and sold to criminals who run the bulk string of data through filtering mechanisms that sort through all of the keystrokes looking for things like log on names and passwords and credit card numbers and pin numbers. Once a criminal has this information, it is easy for them to assume your identity and wreak havoc on your credit file.

How Do I Get Spyware?

Now that we know what spyware is, let’s take a look at how you get it. As mentioned earlier in this article, spyware can be placed on your computer either with or without your consent. The spyware that gets installed on your computer with your consent usually is the adware variety, which includes an uninstaller for that program. You typically consent to these types of programs unknowingly when you attempt to download any type of program from the internet. Typically when you go to install a program, you have to agree to a “User Terms and Conditions” form. Nobody that we know ever reads these things because they are long, boring, and full of legal mumbo-jumbo. If you were to read through the form though, you would find buried deep inside a small paragraph stating something similar to the following – “By using this software, you are agreeing to receive offers and promotions from our partners and affiliates.” That in a nutshell is you agreeing to have spyware placed on your system.

As stated before, spyware can also be placed on your system without your consent. You can get spyware simply by visiting websites that have it coded into their pages, clicking on links in e-mails, clicking on links in Instant Messages, or clicking on pop-up advertising. Also, as stated above, some types of spyware act as “breeders” for other types. Once you are infected with one piece, it won’t be long until other spyware programs are running on your system.

It has long been thought that adult oriented websites have been the major contributor of placing unwanted spyware on your computer. While this is still true, a recent study found that children’s sites rank near the top as well. Advertisers bombard children’s sites with pop-up ads that flash and sparkle, and once a child clicks on that ad, your computer is infested with spyware. Other types of websites that are notorious for placing spyware on your system are travel sites, casino sites, and P2P networking sites.

P2P networking sites are sites that allow you to download illegal music, movies, and programs all for free. These downloads are illegal because they are copyrighted material, and the artist or author is not being compensated for the download. Recently the Recording and Motion Picture Associations have been aggressively suing people who use P2P networks to download music and movie files for free. We had a client this past summer living in Brookfield, WI whose 12 year old daughter was sued by the Recording Industry for $15,000. The family did settle out of court for a substantial amount of money. Don’t think it can’t happen to you.

Is Spyware Illegal?

Sadly, the placing of spyware on your computer without your consent is not yet illegal in most states. Recent legislation introduced both on a state and national level hope to curtail the spyware problem, but we are a long ways away from having this legislation passed. For a state by state breakdown of what legislation is either already on the books or pending, please click this link. If you don’t see your state listed here, it is currently legal for companies to place spyware on your system without your consent, and without penalty.

How Can I Avoid Spyware?

It has been estimated that approximately 98% of all computers that have been on the internet have some form of spyware installed. Last month our article dealt with the four critical things that every computer needs to have to be protected from things like viruses, spyware, hackers, probes, and identity theft. In case you missed last month’s article, or simply want a refresher, please click this link to read the column.

In addition to having those four critical things in place, you need to actively run the anti-spyware and anti-virus programs on a regular basis. Simply having these programs on your system is not enough to protect you. You need to run regular scans to catch anything that may have slipped through the cracks. Next month’s article will rate the various anti-spyware and ant-virus products on the market, and we will make our recommendations as to which ones we feel are our “best bets”.

In addition to having a good anti-spyware program on your system, you need to take some basic precautions when surfing the web. General rules of thumb are don’t click on links in e-mails from advertisers, don’t click on links in instant messaging programs, don’t click on pop-up advertising (simply close them out), don’t use free P2P networks to download illegal music, movies, or programs, and don’t download free programs that promise to enhance your surfing experience.

Another precaution is to make sure to have a good pop-up blocker installed on your system. In our opinion, Google makes a great pop-up stopper that is built into their toolbar. The toolbar is a free download (also free of spyware) and it can be found by clicking this link.

Another recommended option is to use a web browser other than Internet Explorer. The Federal Government released a report last July that stated that Internet Explorer is full of so many security risks that they recommend using an alternative browser. Alternate browsers include but are not limited to Netscape, Opera, and Firefox. Out of these browsers our favorite is Firefox. Firefox is a free download and can be found by clicking here. It has a built in pop-up stopper, and at the time of this writing, no virus or spyware programs are written for the Firefox web browser. We use it on a daily basis, and recommend that you do as well.

How Do I Remove Spyware?

Spyware removal can be a tricky process. As stated earlier, some of the adware variants can be uninstalled by using the Add/Remove Programs feature of the Control Panel. But even this method can prove to be tricky. For example, one piece of spyware may install several different programs into your system, and to effectively remove them, all traces of the programs must be uninstalled or you will be reinfected. The program names don’t always match the name of the spyware, so to find it takes some legwork. Also, many of the uninstallers will actually install additional spyware programs into your system. For this reason, we do not recommend that you use the built in uninstaller unless you absolutely know that it will not install more spyware.

Another option to removing spyware is by using a good anti-spyware program. Not all anti-spyware programs are created equal, and some actually install spyware on your system. But how do you know which ones are good and which ones aren’t? Next month we will be rating the different anti-spyware programs available to you and making our recommendations for the best products to have on your system.

Depending on the level of infestation, you will most likely need a professional spyware removal. Spyware not only hijacks your system, but if you have the malware variant, it changes the way your computer works. Simply removing the spyware isn’t enough. You have to have the changes that were made to your system reverted. Our operating system service not only removes spyware, but restores your system’s settings back to the way they were pre-spyware.