Removing Spyware

Lately the threat and effects of spyware, adware, Trojan horse ‘back-doors’ and the like have gotten so bad that we’ve decided to dedicate an entire section of PCTuneUpTips to helping our users defeat it.

What exactly is spyware? Is it the same as Viruses?

Most of us are quite used to hearing about viruses from all the media attention and outbreaks over the past number of years. But quietly behind the scenes another menace has reared its ugly head: Spyware and Adware. Spyware and adware are harder to detect than viruses because they hook themselves into your Windows OS so deeply and are installed in ways viruses never used.

Some forms of spyware and adware are designed to hijack your system, rigging it to display pop-up ads, artificial search engine results and redirect online purchases you try to make to websites that market through this rogue method. Other forms of spyware are more dangerous. Spyware like keyloggers, which capture screenshots of all your activity on the computer and all the keystrokes you enter into your computer could lead to identity theft and worse yet, capture your online banking and tax software passwords leaving you broke. In some cases keyloggers have been used for cyber-stalking and have been involved in many violent crimes.

Typically, viruses are built to wreak havoc on as many computers as possible, whereas spyware is built and distributed for huge profits. Protecting our privacy and the right to control our own computers makes the fight against spyware and adware something we feel very strongly about!

How does spyware and adware affect my computer’s speed and performance?

Spyware and adware buries itself so deep within your system that it can severely slow your computer’s performance. Spyware and adware usually hijack your computer’s resources and make sure that their rogue programs get your operating system’s priority. This means the programs you really want to run play second fiddle and your computer appears sluggish and unresponsive.

In our experience, regularly scanning for and removing spyware and adware is one of the best and most effective ways to speed up your computer right away.

Run a Free Spyware Scan now to see if your computer has been slowed down by spyware and adware.

How do spyware and adware end up on my computer?

Spyware and adware find their way onto your system in several ways. In all cases they install themselves either without offering you an option to “opt-out”, or by burying the installation details in microscopic EULAs and terms and conditions.

Here’s our list of the Top 5 spyware infection methods: (based on our extensive experience):

  1. “Free” ScreenSavers and other widget-type computer “enhancements”

    This is one of the worst offenders: sites that offer “free” screensavers, desktop wallpapers, and “smiley” enhancements for your email or instant messaging programs. We’ve all seen these advertised in flashing banners on websites, letting you add cute little widgets and features to your email. When you download things like screensavers, wallpapers, and “smileys” to your computer, the installer sneaks in all kinds of nasty spyware and adware that hijacks your computer and pretty soon your Internet browser homepage has been changed, your desktop is littered with new icons you don’t recognize, and pop-ups blow up all over the place when you try to go online.

  2. Peer-to-Peer File Trading Programs and Networks

    Taking advantage of the “free” music and movie trading craze, installers and setup files for free programs that connect you to file-trading networks are often absolutely loaded with hijackers, keyloggers, and pop-up generators. Pretty soon your computer can be almost unusable. In some cases the files themselves that are traded on these networks are re-named to make themselves look like a new album, song, or movie. When you download them though, they’re laced with spyware.

  3. “Free” Online Arcade or Download Games

    As parents, this one really gets our goat. Often targeted at young children (sometimes even preschool-aged) and the elderly, some websites promote “free” online arcade games, or downloads to give you access to thousands of other ”free” card, arcade and gambling games. Once a person (including children) visits these sites, they immediately exploit a known vulnerability in your internet browser. Once they’ve opened a door so to speak, they funnel all kinds of adware and spyware variants into your system. Then the real havoc starts as they redirect your internet viewing, pop-up ads everywhere, and worse.

  4. Dangerous Websites

    “Free” online arcade and game sites aren’t the only offenders when it comes to using known vulnerabilities in your internet browser to open the door to spyware scum. Other dangerous areas of the web include:

    • Adult Sites
    • Gambling Sites
    • Software and Video Game “Crack” sites
    • BitTorrent download search sites (“Trackers”)
    • Survey Sites and more...
  5. Piggy-back” Installations Bundled with Other Software

    Some programs available from software download sites have made a deal with the Devil. In order to add more profit to their existing business, they agree to bundle adware or spyware with their program installer (spyware makers pay big bucks for these bundles). These applications occasionally disclose the installation of bundled spyware deep in their end user agreement text, but more often than not they just go ahead and install themselves without your knowledge or consent. Often the bundled spyware comes in the form of Internet search Toolbars, there to “better your web surfing experience”. This is not the case though, as they are really there to direct your search entries to specific advertisers who have prepared themselves to accept your hijacked search traffic.

Are you Infected with Spyware and Adware Right Now?

Even if you haven’t noticed strange toolbars in your Internet browser, pop-ups appearing every time you try to go online, or your home page hijacked, you MAY STILL BE INFECTED.

We can’t stress this enough: Gartner Research (a leading computer research firm) reports that over 89% of computers connected to the Internet are infected with some form of spyware or adware. Don’t let your computer become a spy or advertisers tool in your own house!

The easiest way to find out if you’re infected or not is to run a free spyware scan using a well-known anti-spyware application like XoftspySE. A free scan will reveal any spyware or adware that may have embedded itself deep in your operating system.

How Can You Protect Yourself from Spyware and Adware Every Day?

There are things you can do to protect yourself and your children from spyware and adware infection.

Add a healthy dose of skepticism: If a cool little program offers to give you free games, screensavers, smileys or wallpapers, our advice is to pass. If you really have to have it, check the site out with spyware website-checkers like www.SiteAdvisor.com. They will tell you if that particular site has a reputation for distributing spyware and adware.

If you're on the techie-er side, you may want to try removing some spyware variants manually. If you do choose to go this route, there's some good tips on manual spyware removal here

Steer clear of the web’s darker corners like gambling, adult content and “crack” sites. Nine times out of ten these either distribute spyware or will likely do so in the near future given current trends. If you are a huge online poker fan check out the site on www.SiteAdvisor.com to make sure it’s safe.

File Trading: we strongly recommend using file trading client software that checks out on www.SiteAdvisor.com, and if you choose to download a file from a file trading search site (or “tracker” in the case of the BitTorrent network) read the other users’ comments to see if the file has been identified as infected with adware and spyware. (Of course, don’t steal other people’s intellectual property…)

Read end-user agreements VERY carefully. With any new apps you download, read the license agreement carefully to ensure they aren’t outright telling you that they have bundled spyware with their installer. To make analyzing the legal stuff easier, try using www.EULAyzer.com to scan and flag anything of particular concern in the legalese.

We can’t recommend strongly enough running a weekly spyware and adware scan. Due to the prevalence of spyware and adware, no matter how careful you and your kids may be online, the odds are your PC is still going to be infected with something born from this menace. We recommend using XoftSpySE, which has the fastest spyware scan that we’ve tested yet.