By Joe Kinsella
My sister recently asked me to fix her family computer; it was no longer able to connect to the Internet. It took more than an hour, but I found the causes: a poorly written software program called New.net installed by one of her teenage daughters, and spyware. Tons of spyware.
In most households with PCs, spyware is installed by the inadvertent actions of kids. Spyware publishers make money by making your home computer a personalized billboard. Their business model is simple: sneak software onto your computer, watch what you do, and then deliver advertisements they think you want to see in the form of pop-ups.
To increase the number of viewers for their ads, spyware publishers often take advantage of the computer habits of children. For example, spyware publishers will often install their software via free utilities, such as online games, screen savers and customized mouse cursors. Spyware publishers also distribute their software through the two most popular software applications among teenagers: peer-to-peer file sharing applications, such as Kazaa or Gnutella, and instant messenger software, such as the newest version of AOL Instant Messenger.
If you have kids who use a computer at home, you probably already know the symptoms of spyware on your system: a barrage of pop-up ads, a new toolbar that suddenly appears in your browser, a change in your default home page, or a slowdown in the overall performance of your computer. But what is often less clear to parents is how the spyware got onto the family computer in the first place, and what you can do to keep it off.
Here are six basic steps you can take to protect your computer:
1. Install a firewall. A firewall (for example, Sygate Personal Firewall, www.sygate.com) is software that can control both incoming and outgoing traffic on your home computer.
2. Install and run anti-spyware software. This software, such as Ad-Aware (www.lavasoftusa.com), identifies, removes and blocks many types of spyware.
3. Install anti-virus software. This software, such as AVG (http://free.grisoft.com), will often identify, remove and block some of the more malicious types of spyware.
4. Automatically download security updates. Most PCs come with Windows Update software (www.microsoft.com/athome/security/update/msupdates.mspx), which can be set up to automatically download and install the latest security patches from Microsoft.
5. Reset your browser’s security settings. Often, spyware will change the security settings on your Web browser, causing your system to be more susceptible to other spyware. You can perform a basic check of your Web browser security at www.microsoft.com/technet/security/chklist/iecl.mspx.
6. Talk to your kids. Teach your children about the risks of downloading and installing software from companies they do not know.
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