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  (and Malware, Backdoors, Trojans, Worms, RATs...)

Without question, some of the most exasperating and difficult technical issues we have faced recently are not classic viruses, but a whole new breed of Internet pest loosely referred to as Spyware. In this article, we'll define this phenomenon, explain how it spreads, and tell you what you can do about it. 

What is Spyware?

In it's broadest definition, Spyware is anything that allows someone  else to view, use, modify, or otherwise invade the privacy of a PC connected to the Internet. They can cross over into virus territory, and may be identified by your virus scanner as a threat, but not quarantined or deleted. There are more specific definitions, however, and it's here where you get a better idea of what's out there:

  • Adware refers to schemes that that "phones home" information about you, your computer, and your surfing habits, often legally created by either companies directly or internet marketing firms that make their money providing buying information for other companies.

  • Malware is essentially the same thing created by less than ethical companies or hackers, and is often much more detrimental. 

  • Browser Hijacks are schemes that change your Browser default settings to re-direct you automatically to sites of the attackers, choosing, sometimes with disastrous results.   

  • Remote Access Trojans (RATs) or Backdoors allow an attacker to remotely control your computer, or to use it in other ways, such as to attack other computers anonymously. A Trojan masquerades as a legitimate program, but does something other than what was intended (as in the deceptive wooden horse used by the Greek army to achieve the fall of Troy). A backdoor is often a direct exploit  of an existing programs vulnerability, and is usually stopped once a patch is applied to that program (as with Windows Update). 

  • Worm: A computer worm is a self-contained program (or set of programs) that is able to spread functional copies of itself or its segments to other computer systems. The propagation usually takes place via network connections or email attachments.

  • Denial-of-Service (DoS) attack agents are usually delivered via a backdoor or worm and use your system to launch attacks on other internet sites to try to crash them. 

  • Keystroke loggers monitor your keyboard input to steal passwords and other confidential data

Common Spyware Programs

Download Accelerator Plus
Ebates MoneyMaker
ImIServer IEPlugin
VX2 Transponder
Virtual Bouncer
2nd Thought
LinkGrabber 99

WebSearch Toolbar/IBIS Toolbar
TV Media Display/TVM/Tvelocity
180search Assistant

eXact Search Bar
MyWay Search Bar
Messenger Plus!/LOP.com

How can you tell if you have Spyware?

  • you are subject to endless pop-up windows

  • you are redirected to web sites other than the one you typed into your browser

  • new, unexpected toolbars appear in your web browser

  • new, unexpected icons appear in the task tray at the bottom of your screen

  • your browser's home page suddenly changed

  • the search engine your browser opens when you click "search" has been changed

  • certain keys fail to work in your browser (e.g., the tab key doesn't work when you are moving to the next field within a form)

  • random Windows error messages begin to appear

  • your computer suddenly seems very slow when opening programs or processing tasks (saving files, etc.)

Where does Spyware come from? 

This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are the dandy ways you can acquire these new friends on a day-to-day basis:

  • Bundled with commercial programs, whether loaded from CD and downloaded from the Internet. An arrangement in which one or more software programs are included with another program, for technical reasons or because of a business partnership. Surprisingly, this practice is widespread even among the largest and most respected software manufactures in the world. Access to your information has become a big business revenue opportunity for all involved. It's this inherent conflict of interest that led to the stalling of legislation against it. In addition, the big software companies have so many cross marketing agreements, that creation of security utilities to kill Spyware is either non-existent or incomplete.  To date, all of the best Spyware eliminators were created by small development houses, and, just like the early days of the Internet, they are still free.

  • Free programs, contests, files, utilities, etc.  accessed from the Internet. Comet Cursor (gives you different choices for changing your cursor) is a good example. Sadly, many marketers who want to track their parents movements deceptively use sites that appeal to children to deliver their Spyware.  

  • Pop-up Ads/Windows that come from sites with "active" content. Sometimes even attempts to close these will install Spyware. The worst of them may actually seem like system messages and offer to "help". Of course, once you click help, you're infected.

  • Hackers using automated probe tools that can scan thousands of machines an hour looking for vulnerabilities (backdoors) in PC software, or linking to PCs already infected with Trojan programs  

  • Unsafe Surfing to known areas of abuse can result in attacks directly through vulnerabilities in your browser. Sites devoted to free stuff, adult themes, gambling, hacking, contests, and sadly even (yes) children can offer up Spyware in much larger frequency than the general Internet. This doesn't mean you will get hit on these sites, nor does it mean that you won't get hit from respected commercial sites, either. Until there is some king of cohesive legislation, anything is possible. And legal.

  • Cookies - A normally useful and safe mechanism for storing information on sites to your local disk such as passwords and a user's preferences on that site. Taken to a different task - logging or tracking private information or movement on the internet - they benefit someone else, not you.

  • File-sharing programs or point-to-point networking programs: Software applications that allow transfer of files over a public or private network, from user to user on the network. Some popular commercial file-sharing programs like Napster also include Spyware Trojan horses. Others simply can install a  "tunnel" from your PC to someone else's. 

  • Regular Email can deliver Ads, fake messages, etc. Some will direct you to a a Spyware site, and further the attack there.  In other truly big-league identity theft schemes, legitimate looking but fraudulent e-mail comes from your bank, or broker, or Microsoft, etc, asking you to follow the e-mail links and enter your personal or account information for some seemingly legitimate reason. You are actually re-directed to the thieves' representation of the real site, and then they steal your information and God knows what else. These attacks are on the rise and should be taken very seriously. Never, ever follow a link from your e-mail or a pop-up to an important private site.  Go to the site directly every time. 

  • Mixed media attacks, wherein you get a phone call and someone indentifying themselves from a major computer manufacturer, such as Microsoft, explains that your PC is a victim of a virus. They then offer a "support link" that is really a remote entry to your PC. Once inside they often point out spurious "errors" as proof and then ask if you want to fix them (for a fee of course). But, as you may have already guessed, these people are thieves, and there is no really telling what they might do once they have access to your PC.

How you can protect yourself from Spyware

  • Maintain a good backup. Any data you have could be lost in any attack at anytime. Don't assume anything. If you can't afford to lose it, back it up. >>  more on backup.

  • An Anti-virus program is still the number one essential protection from harm. Make sure it's up to date, scans regularly, and runs protection in the background. >> more on viruses.

  • Run a Spyware Remover - Many vendors offer products that will scan your computer for Spyware and remove any Spyware software. Popular products include LavaSoft's AdAware, Webroot's SpySweeper, PestPatrol, and Spybot Search and Destroy. Microsoft also has gotten into the fray with their Anti-spyware program.

  • Update and Patch your system files and browser. Run Windows Update regularly, or even set it to automatic updates. Look over any other software you use to access the internet and go to the manufacturers' websites to make sure they also have the latest updates. 

  • Use a Firewall.  A network firewall protects a computer network from unauthorized access and is considered a first line of defense in protecting private information. It typically guards an internal computer on a private network against malicious access from the public internet. >>  more on firewalls. 

  • Get a site blocker- Like IEspyads or Spyware Blaster. These load thousands of known malicious sites into Internet Explorer's restricted area, so even if you are directed there, it won't open or send you malicious cookies or software. 

  • Get a Pop-up Blocker - Google has a good freebie that also adds their search to your browser.

  • Adjust your browser preferences to limit pop-up windows and cookies - Pop-up windows are often generated by some kind of scripting or active content. Adjusting the settings within your browser to reduce or prevent scripting or active content may reduce the number of pop-up windows that appear. Some browsers offer a specific option to block or limit pop-up windows. Certain types of cookies are sometimes considered Spyware because they reveal what web pages you have visited. You can adjust your privacy settings to only allow cookies for the web site you are visiting. Bear in mind that blocking all active content may make your internet experience very difficult. A better solution may be to use a site blocker (above). 

  • Don't click on links within pop-up windows - Because pop-up windows are often a product of Spyware, clicking on the window may install Spyware software on your computer. To close the pop-up window, click on the "X" icon in the title bar instead of a "close" link within the window.

  • Never respond to any E-mail with your personal information. Always go to the site directly as you always do. 

  • Choose "no" when asked unexpected questions - Be wary of unexpected dialog boxes asking whether you want to run a particular program or perform another type of task. Always select "no" or "cancel," or close the dialog box by clicking the "X" icon in the title bar.

  • Be wary of free downloadable software - There are many sites that offer customized toolbars or other features that appeal to users. Don't download programs from sites you don't trust, and realize that you may be exposing your computer to Spyware by downloading some of these programs.

  • Don't follow email links claiming to offer anti-Spyware software or system "helpers". Like email viruses, the links may serve the opposite purpose and actually install Spyware.

The PC Support Source has found effective solutions and streamlined their installation for protecting our customer's security. We offer a special audit and fix package based on everything above to secure PCs from Spyware. Check our specials or service programs areas for pricing and details.   


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