Adware / Spyware

Adware and Spyware have become familiar terms in the lexicon of Internet jargon. Their definitions range from helpful cookies that many people choose to have on their computer to programs that can actually steal your identity. That’s a pretty big area. That’s why any information of these important subjects needs to include definitions of exactly what actually encompasses both adware and spyware.

Adware is software that provides advertising, usually in the form of pop ups, and gathers general information, by using cookies, through the user’s Internet connection. Adware is often packaged with free downloaded programs. By definition, adware, by itself, is not dangerous, but can fall into the annoying category. Adware can generate constant pop up advertising when the downloaded program is running. It can also place cookies on your computer that will provide information about you when you click on the pop ups or log on to the original program download site. If users register the downloaded program, usually games, and pay the registration fee, the adware disappears. If you download a free program, there is a reasonable probability it will contain some form of adware. So far, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many people happily trade payment for enduring a few pop up advertisements and don’t care if their general Internet surfing habits are being tracked. The problem begins when they become intrusive.
That’s when adware becomes spyware.

When adware is expanded to use your computer’s resources to steal information, it becomes spyware. Spyware is like the Trojan horse that is discussed on our Virus article. Computer users who are installing a program or swapping files (i.e. music downloads) may also be installing a spyware program whose purpose is to monitor your computer activity and gather your private and confidential information. This includes e-mail addresses, user passwords and certainly any credit card numbers you enter when making a purchase on-line. They can also happily install other spyware programs, hijack your web browser by changing your home page and your browser’s search engine. All the time it is sending back information to the bad guys, who will use it for their own advertising purposes, sell it to other bad guys or use it to steal your identity. To do all this, spyware uses your computer’s memory resources and bandwidth. This can slow your computer to a crawl, especially if you use memory intensive programs. Spyware is not

Do you have adware and/or spyware on your computer? The chances are absolutely outstanding that you do. This may not be a problem, but sometimes it could be disastrous. Some of the signs that your computer may be infected are:

  1. Your web browser looks a little different. New toolbars suddenly appeared. The search engine you use is different. A brand new home page suddenly appeared.
  2. Pop up advertisements that aren’t related to the web site you are viewing are appearing with disturbing regularity. You click on links that go to nowhere. Ads for pornographic web sites start popping up on your computer. Your “new” search engine produces web sites unrelated to your query.
  3. Your Windows desk top takes longer to load than it did in the past. This is because lots of spyware programs have added themselves to the Windows start up procedure and load every time you turn on your computer.
  4. Your computer is running slower than normal.
    If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you probably are infected and need to take some action.

There are hundreds of Spyware programs on the market. Most offer a free on-line inspection of your computer to see if any spyware is present. Since their scans always find something, it’s a great way to market their product. However, it’s probably a good idea to dig a little deeper before making a buying decision.

Some anti-virus programs include adware and spyware elements as part of the basic program. Check yours and see if you have a spyware feature and if it is activated. If it is, and you still are experiencing problems, make sure you have downloaded the latest updates.

At Jamison Software, we look at viruses and spyware as two different problems and have chosen to attack them with two different programs. When selecting a spyware program we looked at numerous reviews and tested several (they all have 30 day free trials) on different computers before making a decision. Spyware and anti-virus programs work basically the same way. They develop large data bases or encyclopedias of known adware and spyware. The computer is scanned against these data bases and the culprits are identified and deleted or placed in a quarantine folder where they can’t continue to cause trouble. These data bases are constantly updated in order to keep up with the spyware developers. Good Spyware programs should do two things well. They should maintain great data bases and provide fast, proactive customer service.

Why do we like two programs? Viruses and Spyware are cousins and sometimes there is a gray line between the two. With two data bases, we can sometimes stay ahead of the curve, finding a problem in one program that is actually solved by the other. Here’s an example.

We use and highly recommend Spysweeper by Webroot software. One feature of Spysweeper is that it identifies new programs that will start when Windows starts. If no new programs are being installed, this means only one thing-spyware. When that happens, an alert screen appears and there is an option to remove the offending program. Sometimes that procedure is successful and the problem is resolved. However, occasionally the program reappears all by itself in a second or two. We have a virus. That information can be passed on to AVG Anti-virus Systems, our Anti-virus software provider, and within hours an update removing the offender is downloaded and implemented. This happened several times on our test computer (we did not use a firewall to attempt to create just this scenario) and we were very pleased with the results. We also found that Trojan horse files with a .pif suffix were the main culprits.

If you are concerned about spyware, we recommend Spysweeper. We found the data base very thorough and up to date and their customer service team responsive. When we had to upload suspected spyware for their review, they provided detailed, easy to follow instructions.

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