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Dealing with Ad-ware & Spy-ware*

Most of us know (some from hard experience) various strategies to avoid being affected by unwanted intrusions from viruses, Trojan horses and worms. Some have even employed firewalls and/or routers to foil break-in attempts by hackers. But many of us are currently struggling with the infuriating puzzle of what has become known as Spy-ware and Ad-ware.
Just what is Spy-ware and Ad-ware?
In the larger context, Spy-ware and Ad-ware (for simplicity we’ll just call it Ad-ware) belong to the same family of bugs as that of viruses, called mal-ware. In other words a program or group of programs, intentionally written by someone with the intent of getting it on as many PCs as possible for purposes other than what the owner of the computer desires.
With Viruses, the intent is usually malicious with some sort of bad outcome like data deletion, system shutdown, or taking remote control of the target computer.
With Ad-ware the intent can seem obscure, but the ultimate goal is usually to get us to look at some sort of advertising like pop-up ads, spam email, or just force us to view the parent company’s website. This may seem innocuous enough, but the net result is that our computers slow down and we’re constantly interrupted by incessant pop-up ads. In bad cases, connecting with the Internet maybe impossible or Windows may grind to a complete halt.
Since the computer industry differentiates between Viruses and Ad-ware, they are not detected, prevented or cleaned by the current offerings of antivirus software vendors. To complicate things even more, some of these antivirus vendors offer Internet security suites that promise results in this area, but as of this writing, none do a sufficient job protecting us from these unwanted intrusions.
How can we protect ourselves?
  1. Think twice (or more) whenever you are asked to download a program so that you can view a particular website. We are aware of and have probably already downloaded programs like Real Player and Macromedia Flash so that we can fully enjoy the content of some websites. But this tactic is also very common with Ad-ware vendors and, more likely than not, this kind of request is from one these bad actors. How can we tell if it’s a legitimate request or just an Ad-ware scam? It can be difficult, and it may be easier and safer to just say no to all requests. The worst that could happen, if we say no, is that we won’t be able to completely view the website’s content. If this is the case and we can’t live without it, then we can install it. Another tactic would be to do a Google search on the particular program or website that is pushing the request and see if there are any reports that it is an Ad-ware scam.

    NOTE: If you are using the Windows XP Operating System (either Home Edition or Professional) on your PC, we recommend installing Service Pack 3.  Service Pack 3 provides a built-in firewall and will notify you when anything tries to load onto your computer, giving you the option to block the download (which you should always do).

    To check to see if Service Pack 3 is already installed on your PC, find your "My Computer" folder and right-click on it.  Then left-click on  "Properties" and your "System Properties" folder should appear.  Under the "General" tab, you will see your system properties telling you what operating system you have running and underneath that it will say "Service Pack 2" if you have that loaded.  If it says anything other than "Service Pack 3" --  it means you do not have the latest Service Pack loaded.  Before loading Service Pack 3, make sure you have your critical data documents, photos, etc., backed up in case of problems with the installation of Service Pack 3. 

     

  2. Stay away from websites that are notorious for these kinds of scams. Legally questionable music sharing sites are some of the worst offenders. Others would include sites such as coupon clipping sites or sites that offer savings on items bought on the Internet. Or, in general, any site that offers something for nothing should raise a red flag in our minds. What is in it for them? If the benefit to them is not apparent, then it may be that they are profiting by sneaking ad-ware onto our computers.
  3. Furthermore,just going to one of these scam sites can invite what’s called a “drive by download” where ad-ware is installed automatically and without permission to our computer.
  4. Don’t install 3rd party software that promises to defend against ad-ware, spy-ware, pop-up ads and spam without checking them out first. Many of these so called defenders are actually the scammers themselves dressed up in sheep’s clothing. Talk to your computer technician or do an Internet search before installing any such utilities.
  5. Be very careful when confronted with a pop-up advertisement. Always close the pop-up window without clicking anywhere in the actual window. The only safe ways to close these nuisances are as follows:
    a. Click the X in the top right-hand corner
    b. If no X is available, do not click the close button, no thanks button or anything else within the window. Doing so will invite the scam artist to install itself on the computer.
    c. If no X is available, use the Alt + F4 key combination. This closes the active (or top most) window on the screen.
    d. Alternatively, you may open the task manager by using the Ctrl + Alt + Delete key combination, and then close the unwanted application.
    e. If we visit a site that pushes such pop-ups at us, then we must avoid this site in the future – it means us no good.
  6. Don’t open spam email. These are often a scam web page itself and merely opening it will take us to the site and invite the download of unwanted ad-ware to the computer.
Routine Maintenance
Now that we’ve discussed ways to avoid these kinds of problems, I want to come clean and admit that even after doing everything correctly, the odds are good that we will all be subjected to some sort of ad-ware infection (and more often than not, without our even noticing it).
That leaves us with the job of staying vigilant by employing the trusted ad-ware removal tools that are available to us. The two ad-ware/spy-ware removal programs that I recommend are the industry leaders “Spybot Search and Destroy” and “Ad-aware”. These come as free downloads from the Internet. They both offer upgraded programs that they charge for but I recommend merely employing the free versions.
Both these programs work by scanning the hard drive and the Windows registry for instances of Ad-ware/Spy-ware and deleting them. The free versions must be run manually, and both must be updated manually before each scan.
The paid-for versions run in the background continuously and automate the upgrade and scan processes. However, I have experienced various problems with both of these, so I’m sticking to the more labor intensive but free versions (at least for now).
Run one or both of these programs on a regular schedule (or at the first sign of infestation) and the occurrence and severity of this problem will be greatly reduced or even eliminated.
The Ultimate Solution
Eventually the Virus and Internet security program vendors will get their respective acts together and develop a combined solution for viruses, ad-ware and the other security threats, but even then we will still need to be vigilant. Let’s face it, we don’t leave the front door open all night just because we have a security system.
In Summary
Know what you’re downloading (see #1 above).
Install Service Pack 2 if you are running Windows XP Operating System (see #1 above).
Do not download from pop-up ads or music-sharing sites (see #1 & 2 above)
Be cautious closing pop-up ads (see #5 above).
Do not open spam email (see #6 above).
Install, update, & run on a regular basis the recommended Ad-ware/Spy-ware scanning programs (see Routine Maintenance above).

 

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Copyright © 2002-2012 Mobile PC Medic, Inc.
*Original content authored by Cynthia Nance & Leigh Headley
All rights reserved
Webmaster: info@mobilepcmedic.com
Revised May 23, 2012