Spyware may be stealing your computer-use secrets

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN
Does your computer seem to be gradually slowing down? Are you plagued with pop-ups? Does your system try to dial up the Internet whenever it’s started? Are you getting a lot of odd errors?

If so, your computer may be a victim of spyware.

Although most computer users are familiar with spam and viruses, spyware is a relatively new phenomenon and a growing problem, said Lloyd Davies, owner of Great Plains Computers & Networking in Marion.

“We began noticing spyware about two years ago. That’s the first time I remember running into it and not realizing what we were dealing with,” he said. “We had a dial-up connection slowing down and we found another program running there, and it was spyware.

“Since then it’s far surpassed viruses as a problem. It’s really bad.”

What is spyware?

Spyware is software that works behind the scenes to monitor your computer activity and report information back to a data-collection site.

“It monitors your movement on the Internet,” Davies said. “It will look for information off your PC, such as credit-card information or if you’re running certain programs. Basically it’s parasitic software. That’s about the best way to describe it.”

Although many people think spyware is a virus, Davies said there is an important distinction.

“The big difference is a virus is coming unsolicited, whereas with spyware you have somehow given them permission to get in,” he said. “With spyware, you have inadvertently or sometimes without your consent downloaded software that basically spies on you.”

How does it enter your system?

Spyware gains access to your system in a variety of ways.

“You may have downloaded some free software or bought some software that had it packaged in there,” Davies said. “Or you may have hit a site that had a pop-up.”

The amount of spyware increased dramatically with the early free music downloads, Davies said.

“When you download free software, the way they pay for that is by selling information about the users to advertising companies and media companies,” he said. “Kazaa, one of the music download pieces, was just horrible about bringing multiple spywares down to your PC.

“You’d download this free software, and in the fine print it said, ‘You’re allowing us to monitor your habits.’ And they’d load programs to your PC as part of that, and every time you’d connect to the Internet it would send out information like how long you’ve been on and where you’d gone. Then they sell that demographic information.”

As an added problem, some spyware programs will go to the Internet and bring back other spyware, Davies said.

“So you get one and they’ll get other ones,” he said. “I think our record here is 13,000 spyware programs. So as soon as you turn on the PC, you’ve essentially started 13,000 programs that are trying to get themselves out to the Internet. You run out of memory in the system.”

Davies said free software offering bells and whistles for your computer is often loaded with spyware.

“You’ll hit a site that says, ‘Do you want to synchronize your time? Download this free software.’ Or there’s one that has a little calendar that shows up in your task bar on the bottom and it’s free,” he said.

“Well, it’s from GAIN-Gator Advertising Information Network-and they download spyware on top of it.”

Free software that sounds cute is also a frequent entry point for spyware, Davies said.

“One is this little purple monkey, Bonsai Buddy,” he said. “It was a cutesy thing that would pop up all over your screen. It had all kinds of spyware associated with it.

“There are a lot of them,” he added. “I think there are 25,000 to 30,000 known spyware programs now.”

Pop-ups are another point of origin for spyware, Davies said.

“When a pop-up pops up, it will have one box inside another box and if you click the wrong one it initiates spyware,” he said.

“Another one we see a lot is when you get a ‘security warning’ that says you’re going to get spyware and you need to scan right now-and that’s the spyware,” he said.

“There are also some that mimic Microsoft text, so it looks like it’s coming from Microsoft,” he said,” he said. “It’s pretty treacherous stuff.”

Davies said spyware is also rife in pornography sites.

“They are going to download some very interesting spyware for you,” he said.

Spyware is generally not a concern with on-line ordering, Davies said.

“They may add a little bit of tracking information so the next time you get on there and order you’re not filling in all the blanks again,” he said. “But they’ve got security checks as you go in and out, and they’re not going to put anything in that wrecks your system or degrades your performance.”

Identifying spyware’s presence

How do you know you’ve got a problem?

Davies said you might have spyware in your system without even knowing it.

“It doesn’t really show up as a running program,” he said. “You’ll see it in your start menu and in the registry, but the spyware really runs under the radar. You’ll see the symptoms of it more than anything.”

Davies said they often hear from people who notice their system has become very slow, crashes or isn’t working quite right.

A slow-running system is one of the best indicators of a problem, he said.

“Especially if you’ve noticed it over a couple weeks or a month’s time and you haven’t been adding a lot of programs,” he said.

Other signs of spyware may be odd errors, numerous pop-ups or a dial-up system that immediately tries to access the Internet when it is turned on.

“Another sign you’ve got spyware is if all the sudden the first page that opens up has changed, and whenever you go home it goes straight back to that page,” he said. “Most of the time what you’ll get is some sort of search page.

“That’s spyware running, and it has hijacked your Web pages and you can’t get out; you just keep looping back,” he said.

Davies said sometimes the problem is so bad that the system will no longer boot.

“It’ll start to boot up and loop back,” he said. “Something has completely destabilized the operating system.”

Lest anyone think they’re alone with this problem, Davies said spyware is rampant.

“It’s something we’re dealing with constantly with about every machine that comes in here or we see on site,” he said. “We scan for spyware on just about everything that walks in the door.”

How it affects your system

Davies said while not all spyware is sinister, much of it is written poorly and can wreak havoc with a system even if it is not intended to be malicious.

“Some of it is kind of innocuous,” he said. “They just want to track that you’ve got that software. But some of it is not written very well, so it crashes the computer and makes it unstable.”

The more spyware in your system, the slower it will run.

“It’s just like if you turned on your PC and opened up Word 16 times,” Davies said.

Many people are afraid that spyware will destroy their computer system, but that worry is unfounded, he said.

“It’s not going to damage any of the hardware. That’s one misconception I get a lot,” he said. “It may screw up the programming, but you can put that back. You may be crippled to the point where you have to reinstall the operating system again. But that doesn’t happen too often.”

How to get rid of spyware

Davies said there are a number of free spyware-removal tools that may be downloaded from the Internet.

“There are a couple free ones that are legit, but there are also some that aren’t legit that make it worse,” he said.

He recommends using Spy Sweeper (spysweeper.com), Ad-aware (Lavasoftusa.com) or Spybot (spybot.info).

“They are real similar to virus removal software where they’ve got a definitions list,” he said. “With Ad-aware, you can keep updating things, because new spyware comes out all the time. But with Spy Sweeper, you download it that one time and if you want any updates, you have to purchase it.

“All of these companies offer the free tool to remove things, but there’s a paid version that will prevent it from happening,” he added.

When you download a removal tool, it will immediately scan your system for spyware, Davies said.

“That’s if you can get to the Internet to get it downloaded,” he said. “A lot of times, we’ll get a machine that is crippled because some of the spyware goes after any anti-virus and spyware detection tools and it blocks them.”

When that happens, Davies said they have to pull the hard drive and set it up in another machine to scan it with another system.

“Then we go back and rescan it again on its own when the operating system is up and running,” he said.

Davies said they often use more than one removal tool.

“We will remove things with one and then we’ll still find more things with the other,” he said.

Frequently, manual repairs must be made to the system to supplement the work done by the removal tool.

“The removal tool will disable the spyware, but it doesn’t clean everything out. You’ve got to go in manually and make sure you’ve got all the time bombs out of there and do some repairing of the registry.”

Davies said the spyware overlays part of the original operating system, and when you remove the spyware “it’s like you’re pulling a parasite out and it may take those files with it-and that may cripple the operating system. So you’ve got to go in there are replace those files.”

Growing sophistication

Spyware has gotten more sophisticated over time, Davies said.

“About December of last year, we started seeing a blended threat in these spywares, which means they attack on multiple fronts,” he said. “They hide like time bombs. You’ll get rid of it and there will be an executable that executes in 12 hours or 24 hours. The spyware writers have gotten more clever with hiding how to get rid of it.”

Fortunately, anti-virus software is beginning to include spyware definitions, Davies said. That will eventually reduce the need for separate spyware removal tools.

“The new 2004 versions of the anti-virus are including some of it-they’ll see it as a Trojan-horse virus,” he said. “I’m hoping that gets more robust so when you get your anti-virus security, you can just scan the whole thing and be done.”

How to avoid spyware

Davies said the best way to avoid a spyware problem is to be cautious about what you let into your system.

“Don’t download anything free unless you know it’s legit,” he advised. “One particular group to avoid is the search bars that give you all these cool sites to help you search the Internet. Bad news. I guarantee there’ll be stuff in there.”

Even if a friend recommends something, be cautious, Davies said.

“If someone says, ‘I’ve got this free little cute thing,’ shy away from it unless you absolutely know what it is,” he said.

Davies said the smiley pop-ups should also be avoided.

“You don’t want to download those,” he said. “Also, be careful where you’re surfing. If you end up at a site where you get some strange pop-up, be careful how you exit out of it. The best thing is to try to close it out from the window itself as opposed to hitting anything inside the box.”

Business systems are just as vulnerable to spyware as home computers, Davies said. Spyware often gets into a business system when employees surf the Internet.

“With business clients, the one thing they don’t want is somebody spying on their business network,” he said.

Caution and common sense are the most effective tools for reducing the possibility that spyware will enter your syste.

“I’m on the Internet constantly, and I hardly ever get anything,” he said. “It’s just being careful. I’ve got clients who see all this stuff and load it up, and it’s causing this spyware. They’ll be back several times to clean it up. If you leave all the doors and windows open, the mosquitoes will get in.”

Keep perspective

Despite the headaches of spyware removal, Davies advises people not to be overly alarmed by the threat.

“I’ve got people who say they’re never going to get on the Internet again,” he said.

“Don’t be scared just because it’s out there. It’s like driving cross-country. Bad things can happen if you end up at the wrong place at the wrong time. Just don’t go there.”

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