Securing Your Computer from Prying Eyes

By Daniel Saltzman


In the past year, spyware – software compromising your privacy and your computer’s functionality – has increased dramatically. Here’s how to stop it before it starts and remove it once it’s there.

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SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Think back a year or so ago. Was your Microsoft-based PC faster? Did you get as many pop-up ads? Chances are your computer is infested with “spyware.” Spyware can take a fast computer and grind it to a halt, making Web browsing and other tasks nearly impossible. At the same time, spyware can transmit personal information, such as banking passwords, to just about anyone in the world. It can render your computer useless, dangerous, or both.

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If you’re asking, “But is spyware really something I need to worry about?” The answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

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Take, for example, what computer makers’ technical support centers have seen in recent years. In the summer of 2003, only 2 percent of Dell Inc.’s tech support calls related to spyware, notes Dell spokesperson Jennifer Davis. That number swelled to 20 percent by 2004, Davis says. And such calls are now the No. 1 reason people contact Dell’s support lines.

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“It has become huge,” Steve St. Lawrence, a corporate sales representative at PC Connection Inc., says of the spyware situation. “Systems are getting choked down. Since January (2004) there has been an explosion of this kind of thing.”

Microsoft claims that 50 percent of reported Windows “crashes” in the month of April were attributable to spyware. According to Sioux Fleming, director of product management at Computer Associates, the world’s largest management software company, there has been a 10-fold increase in the amount of spyware circulating on the Internet since December 2003. So, undeniably, spyware is a serious problem, one that’s likely to affect most Windows computer users.


Prevention and Treatment

In the world of spyware, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is best to keep spyware from affecting your life by barring it from your computer altogether. Accomplishing this requires safe-surfing habits. Follow these rules of prevention:

• Do not indiscriminately click “OK”
when a window pops up asking if you’d like to do something. Always read and fully comprehend any such window and click accordingly. Avoiding spyware usually means answering in the negative – that is, unless the message contains double negatives, a common trick where “no” means “yes.”

• Weigh the value of a Web site or download with the possible spyware implications.
Generally speaking, the more “fringe” the site or download, the more likely it contains spyware. Installing file-sharing software like Kazaa, for example, invites 43 other applications and spyware onto your system, according to Fleming.

• Be cautious about a Web site offering something of value for free.
As the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Although there are some notable exceptions, rarely are free games and other software on the Internet available without strings attached. The price often paid for such freebies is a hefty dose of spyware.

But even the most vigilant safe-surfer may end up with spyware. Comprehensive spyware management requires additional, more aggressive tactics. A small investment in software and hardware adds another layer of prevention and removes the spyware that slips through the cracks.

There are several choices of software and hardware out there, as well as configuration changes people can make on their PC, to stop spyware in its tracks:

Free software, such as AdAware SE from Lavasoft, does a great job of cleansing your PC of most spyware.

Computer Associates offers PestPatrol for $40; it is more aggressive than AdAware. Best for the novice, this software obliterates all spyware from your computer, and its real-time protection keeps spyware at bay preventatively.

Make sure you regularly visit Microsoft’s Windows Update site and apply all critical updates and service packs. Alternatively, enable Microsoft Windows Automatic Updates from within Windows’ control panel.

Consider using an alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser. Firefox is safer and free.

Use an Internet firewall. Windows XP includes an effective software firewall. Many other products, such as Trend Micro's PC-cillin, incorporate antivirus software and a firewall in one package. But for the best protection, a hardware firewall is recommended. Most broadband routers (devices that allow multiple computers to share an Internet connection), such as the D-Link DI-624, incorporate solid firewall technology for less than $100.

Consider buying a Mac. Apple’s newest computers are fast, reliable, easy-to-use, and best of all, virtually free of spyware and other malware. With a seemingly never-ending stream of security issues in Windows, now is a good time to think about making a switch to the Mac.


The Bottom Line

Ignoring spyware is not wise; it’s something you’re likely to regret. Follow these five quick tips to prevent spyware and other malware from compromising your computer:

  Pick and choose Web sites for perusal carefully. Gambling, adult and some gaming sites, for example, often contain copious amounts of spyware. Resist the temptation to install “free” games and other unnecessary software.

  Employ anti-spyware and anti-virus software, as well as a firewall.

  If a box pops up asking you a question, when in doubt, answer in the negative (this could be “no” or “yes” depending on tricky wording, such as “Yes, I’m sure I don’t want it”).

  Consider alternative Web browsers and even alternative, non-Microsoft-based computers.

“You should protect your PC just like you would your home,” St. Lawrence says. Not taking action against spyware leaves your computer open to a slew of malicious software just waiting to steal your information and ruin your computing experience. Following these tips will help to keep your computer running optimally and protect your personal information and privacy.