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Tales from the Rough World of Malware

July 2004

People tell me their computer troubles--sad and scary tales of viruses and spyware and adware. From this I conclude that each and every one of you MUST take measures to protect yourself.

A friend told me about all the popup ads he was getting when accessing web sites. The ads were often related to his interest in photography. Sure, you might expect a popup ad or two when going to a photography site, but he was getting many photography-related popups even on other sites.

I happened to mention this to another friend, and he had a worse story: he said that when he visits any web site, he typically gets around 10 popup ads.

This, dear readers, is adware. It sneaks onto your computer when you use the Internet. Getting excessive popups is just one symptom of adware or spyware. This software can actually spy on you--track your activities on the Internet and even steal information such as passwords or legitimate credit card numbers.

Another friend told about a woman who desperately sought his help. Her computer had gotten so slow it was barely usable. He checked out her computer and found that it was filled with viruses and spyware. And even as I was standing in a checkout line, the person behind the cash register, who must have recognized my face from this column, asked my help: he had viruses that forced him to restart his computer every 10 minutes. He couldn't even run it long enough to download virus software.

Oh dear, oh dear, what's a person to do? Well, I'm here to tell you. Unfortunately, since I'm a Macintosh user I'm not much of an expert on the PC world, where most of these problems are found. So I asked my friend Fred Rosenberg for advice, since he knows just about everything about computers.

He has none of these problems and suggested that you need four things: 1) a "firewall," 2) software that detects and deletes adware or spyware, 3) virus protection software, and 4) Google Toolbar to block popup ads. The good new is that most of this can be done for free.

For a firewall he recommends the free version of ZoneAlarm. This popular program controls the door to your computer and allows only traffic that you understand and aapprove, blocking hackers and other unknown threats. It asks your permission each time there's traffic in or out, but gradually learns what traffic you approve--a sort of "training period"--after which it functions in the background.

Note that there are legitimate purposes for this kind of software, but it's important that you be the one to decide.

ZoneAlarm offers you general protection, but what if you already have adware or spyware on your computer? Fred recommends a freeware program called Ad-aware, which scans your memory, registry, and disk drives for "known datamining, aggressive advertising, and tracking components" and then deletes them.

Since it's checking for "known" adware, you need to update it regularly--something that is simply done. Fred updates several times a month. If you purchase the commercial version, the updates happen automatically.

In addition to these measures, it's important to have antivirus software, which both checks for viruses that you might already have and detects viruses as they try to get on your computer via e-mail attachments or other means.

Fred said that a popular free program for virus protection is AVG Anti-Virus. You can use AVG to scan your computer for viruses, to automatically check your e-mail, and to fix infected files. You can get free updates automatically.

This is important: any virus or spyware protection is only looking for known "malware" (the general term used to refer to all deliberately malicious software). If a new virus is released on the Internet, the software you use for protection won't recognize it. When you download an update, it adds new "virus definitions" to your protection software so that it can detect and remove the latest malware.

An advantage of spending money to get commercial software is that it typically goes after the whole range of malware with one program. One that has gotten good reviews this year is PC-Cillin. Other popular commercial programs are sold by Symantec (Norton AntiVirus) and McAfee.

To find out more information about firewall software, see Home PC Firewall Guide. Also, the About web site has a good section on protecting yourself from viruses and spyware. If you're using Windows XP, be sure you enable the built-in firewall software.

OK, no more sad tales. Follow this advice, and your story will have a happy ending.

© 2004 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen