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A Spyware Guide: Detect and Prevent Infection

The Anti-Spyware Coalition (ASC), which is a group of academics, anti-spyware companies, and consumer organizations, defines spyware as:

"Spyware is a term for Tracking Software deployed without adequate notice, consent, or control for the user."

Spyware programs are installed into your system without your knowledge, in order to show you unwanted advertisements. They can record your personal data and browsing trends for showing better targeted ads. Unlike viruses or Trojans, spyware may not damage your software or operating system. They can, however, slow down your system a lot.

How Do Spyware Infect A System?

Facetime Communications, an online security company, estimates that almost 80 per cent of the world's computers are affected by spyware. Spyware installation can happen through various means. Most of them rely on the security loopholes in the host system. Here are some of the tactics by which they infect a system:

1. Automatically: Some spyware, such as Claria Corporation's tiny program called Gator, get installed without any notification. This happens when you visit a web page infected by the spyware. Only if you have set your browser security to the high level, you will get a notification of this installation.

2. By Tricking Users: Some spyware trick users with a message stating that the system is infected by viruses and Trojans, with a button to start scanning. If you click this button, it will spark a spyware installation instead.

3. As Browser Add-ons: Sometimes, spyware applications are installed as browser's add-ons. Installing unverified toolbars, buttons, or other functionalities to your browser may cause this. Therefore, it is recommended that you install add-ons only from the browser's official website, which contains verified components only.

4. With Software Packages: Sometimes spyware programs are bundled with the installation packages of other software. This is the case with many Peer-to-Peer file sharing applications. The issue here is that if you remove the specific piece of spyware, the original application may not run properly. So, many people see it as an unavoidable risk.

5. Through Unknown E-mails: Viewing and clicking links on emails from unknown senders may not always be safe. Some of these links may be already infected by a piece of spyware looking to expand its presence.

What It Does?

Many spyware usually don't install once, but multiple times. Some even have the ability to reinstall themselves after detection and deletion. Once installed, the spyware sets itself to start automatically every time the operating system starts. Here are some of the activities it can do:

  • Degrades system performance by taking up RAM (memory) space.
  • Gives numerous unwanted pop-up ads, rendering browsing almost impossible.
  • Steals personal information, such as credit card and social security numbers.
  • Configures system settings to initiate download of more spyware.
  • Changes browser settings, such as the default home page.
  • Disables firewalls and antivirus software.
  • Creates troubles in your system's connectivity to the Internet.
  • Dials to expensive telephone numbers and networks when you try to dial-up to the Internet.
  • Redirects you to affiliate URLs to secure commissions from your purchases.

These are only a few of what spyware can do. They can be extremely effective in making a fortune for the people who engage in distributing them.

Spyware Prevention

Today, spyware programs are more prevalent than viruses or Trojans just because they can help make a lot of money. In order to prevent them from infecting your system, you need to follow a few strategies. Here are they:

Pop-up Blocking: Most of the browsers have the built-in functionality to detect and block pop-ups and pop-unders. You need to activate this feature. Refer to your browser's technical documentation for this purpose.

In case of Mozilla Firefox, you can block pop-ups from Tools->Options->Content tab.

In case of Internet Explorer, you can do this from Tools->Pop-up blocker->Settings.

Disable Scripting and ActiveX: Microsoft's ActiveX technology is used to run certain interactive scripts through your browser interface. This can, however, open an easy door to spyware. So, disable ActiveX and such other forms of scripting in your browser.

To disable ActiveX in IE, go to Internet options->Security. Choose the Internet icon, and click Custom level. You will find the option to disable ActiveX scripting among several other security settings.

Set High Browser Security: Set your browser to notify you of any installations or unauthorized activities. You can do this in IE from Internet Settings->Security tab.

Use Anti-spyware: There are several professional anti-spyware programs available. Purchase and use one such reputed program besides your firewall and antivirus.

Tips:

  • Don't click inside any pop-ups. Just close it as soon as it opens.
  • Before trying to install any new software you download, scan it with your anti-spyware program.
  • Don't install unverified browser plug-ins from third-party websites.
  • Keep your anti-spyware program updated and running all the time.
  • Don't click links or open attachments in emails from unknown senders.

Famous Spyware Programs

Here are a few well-known spyware programs. These tiny applications garnered a lot of attention from users and programmers worldwide at the times they appeared.

1. CoolWebSearch: This piece of spyware appeared in 2003. It is capable of changing the user's browser home page and showing pop-up ads to sites including pornographic ones.

2. Internet Optimizer: This spyware program redirects users, who accidentally types in a wrong URL, to a page full of advertisements.

3. Zango: Currently, this spyware program has a lot of promoters who get paid for making people install it into their systems. It collects the data regarding websites people visit, in order to display targeted ads. It also redirects users to affiliate tracking URLs to bag commissions from their purchases.

4. Popcorn.net: This piece of spyware was distributed by an online movie download service; it shows pop-up ads on user systems. It caused a lot of complaints at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

Conclusion

On a daily basis, new spyware applications spring up and affect many systems. A huge number of computer users don't have any security software installed. Many people also do online transactions involving credit cards and other sensitive data, without encryption. These people are the primary target of spyware distributors. Spyware programs can easily transmit these sensitive data to third-parties. So, be very careful when using online services to send important data.

Comments

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