Preventing spyware from getting into your PC.

By | May 29, 2007

virus.jpgAs I was having a major problem with spyware/malware residing in my PC for the past several days, I’m think I’m going to talk about this ubiquitous problem that is afflicting millions of PCs the world over at any given time.

My first direct experience with a computer spyware was back in the good old days of the Internet, about 5 years ago. I can still clearly remember a window suddenly popping on my PC screen and then this message telling me what the contents of my hard drive were, and then offering a solution, namely an anti-spyware software.

If this happens to you, it means something is REALLY compromised on your PC. At that time, I wasn’t so knowledgeable about all this stuff so I wasn’t too bothered about it. But in hindsight, that’s a really serious problem. It may also indicate that some parties may actually write some spyware or malware or engage in hacking activities just because they want to sell their own anti-spyware program. Just remember, a virus or spyware program had to be written by someone, somewhere.

Well, anyway that particular PC of mine is consigned to history today. But the threat is more real than ever.

Basically, there are supposed to be several kinds of nasties, each with their own unique traits, although these are frequently interchangeable.

  • viruses
  • spyware
  • malware
  • trojans
  • adware
  • worms
  • hijackers

Frequently, these nasties are hybrids and display related behavioral characteristics. Of all these, I would rank spyware and trojans as the most common, insidious and potentially destructive amongst the lot.

Worms can be avoided as long as you don’t simply open your email attachments. Hijackers can usually be avoided by installing some good pop up blockers, and viruses are all but controlled by some good antivirus software. But spyware and trojans are not so easily noticed, and that’s why they have gained a foothold inside many a PC.

Of the two, I would say spyware is the more widespread one, and trojans the most deadly. Trojans can do a lot of harm, especially the keylogger kind. These types will log your keystrokes and therefore they can steal your passwords. They can also create snapshots/capture screenshots of your activities. Fortunately, they are almost always detected by a good antivirus software because they always run on a program which makes them detectable. But there are other trojans that are not so obvious, and these usually would be classed as spyware.

Spyware are usually harder to detect, because they can mimic some harmless file, and they can reside on your PC for a long time. They can appear innocuous, while they silently monitor your activity, perhaps on a periodic basis. They are not always picked up by antivirus software, therefore you will almost always need to install some dedicated anti-spyware that is only primed to search and destroy spyware, in addition to a regular antivirus program.

Some signs or symptoms of spyware are:

  • Your computer seems to take a longer time to start up, and frequently runs much slower than it should.
  • You see a yellow triangle icon in your system startup tray. It has an exclamation mark on it, and in many cases, it reveals it’s program when you mouse over it or click on it, but it may also just disappear upon being clicked. This yellow triangle icon may also just indicate some hardware malfunctioning or incompatibility, therefore be sure to examine all possible angles.
  • Pop up advertisements appear on your PC out of seemingly no where.
  • Your default browser homepage changes without your consent (This is a primary hijacker trait, actually).
  • Your browser may become unstable.

So how do you prevent spyware from getting into your PC? Just remember there’s no such thing as bulletproof protection, but here are some things you can do to reduce the risk:

  • Your browser security settings need to be at medium or higher on Internet Explorer (Internet Options > Security) and if using Firefox, make sure the “warn me when sites try to install add ons ” option is checked.
  • Don’t download software from dubious sources. Sometimes they have clauses in their EULA (End User License Agreement) that say “some add ons will be installed”, for example. Be extra careful of any dubious .exe files or Flash/Javascript files that require installation. If in doubt, just block any pop up that you don’t need.
  • Avoid P2P file sharing, warez sites, porn sites, and gambling sites, if possible. Loads of hazards there.
  • Use a firewall, or several layers of firewalls (needs expertise to do this). Firewalls are not a feature of Windows versions earlier than XP, so if you’re still on Windows 98, (for example) then you definitely need to purchase a Firewall program. Normally recommended programs that install firewalls are Zone Alarm, MacAffee, AVG, and Norton. For best protection, use firewalls that combine outbound and inbound protection at the same time. Outbound firewalls prevent spyware or trojans from sending out information from your PC, and inbound firewalls prevent external sources from accessing your PC. The Windows XP Firewall is an inbound firewall only, so may not be adequate for intensive Internet usage. Firewalls may interfere with normal browsing, so use with care. A good place to learn more about firewalls is Google’s directory list page on firewalls.
  • Switch to Firefox if possible, as Firefox is known to block many kinds of spyware from getting through.
  • Install Spybot S&D and AdAware, two good free anti-spyware programs. Most anti-spyware programs work in conjunction with any antivirus program, so use them both.
  • Make sure your anti-spyware and antivirus programs are always updated, in order to keep up with the latest “nasty updates” too.

I hope these pointers prove useful. If there’s any other good tips I left out, feel free to let me know!

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