Virus, Malware, Spyware, Adware, Browser Hijacker. How is any PC amateur to make sense of all this?

Frustrated? Me too. A few years ago I was on a crusade to convince all my friends to get PCs. The Web was the coolest thing since Atari. Viruses were rare, you could only get one by downloading an infected program and running it on your computer, and all you needed was a cheap antivirus program to keep you safe.

Now there is malware (malicious software), spyware (software that spies on you), adware (software that annoys you with advertisements), worms (software that leaks through security holes in your Operating System or other programs), and browser hijackers (software that takes over your Web browser and either takes you to sites you never wanted to see or blocks you from going to favorite sites). The bad part is that, in most cases, these work very differently from viruses, which means your trusty $50 antivirus program can’t detect or protect you from these things. It’s like taking antibiotics for a cold — it just doesn’t work that way. So now we have anti-spyware programs, like Spybot Search & Destroy, Ad-Aware SE, Spyware Eliminator, Spyware Blaster, Hijack This, etc. (Important note: watch out for Spyware Nuker, it’s not what you think — see below)

So what do you use? Spybot S&D and Ad-Aware seem to be the most popular for finding and removing common spyware infections. Spyware Eliminator claims to be able to remove the about:blank (aka CoolWebSearch) spyware, which happens to be nearly impossible to remove with any other tool. Spyware Blaster (review here) claims to block or prevent most spyware from getting into your PC in the first place. HijackThis is more a utility for advanced PC users: it digs deep into the system, reports everything it sees including legitimate programs, and lets you remove whatever you want. Generally users copy the results and upload them to a news forum for analysis by users that supposedly “know” what the best course of action will be. Be careful with this one and be careful of the advice you get. I’ve noticed that there are many opinions for each type of infection reported.

It should go without saying that you should back up your My Documents, Favorites, Outlook folders, etc., before doing anything advanced (such as HijackThis). Also, the first thing you might want to do if you have Microsoft Windows ME or XP is to try a previous restore point that dates back prior to the infection. Keep in mind that this can remove settings that other recently installed software has put in place, but it might be easier to re-install a game than to remove a spyware infection.

Now if all that isn’t enough to confuse and frustrate a novice… stay away from Spyware Nuker. This program claims to remove spyware but at the same time installs it’s own. Go figure. If you want it, it’s at nuker.com, but I don’t even recommend going to their site. See this article at Symantec or this article at Camtech2000 for more details.

Prevention? Of course, there is always abstinence — unplug the cord to your modem and never connect to the Web again. Not. Always, always, always, be up-to-date with your patches and service packs. Why does no one get this?

Check out About.com‘s article The Best AntiSpyware Tools of 2005 for some recommendations, news about Microsoft‘s own anti-spyware program and links to more resources. AdwareReport also has some good information. Also, don’t get so caught up with the whole spyware thing that you forget to update your antivirus program. If you’re going to surf, wear your armor and try not to sink.

Terry

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