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Spyware and you.

Is your computer running painfully slow? Does it take a couple of days to open the browser? And when it does open, does it immediately jump to a get-rich-quick website instead of your hotmail account? If so, it's very likely that your computer has been infected with spyware. How did you get it? You don't need to do anything exceptionally dangerous or foolish to get spyware. Simply connect an unprotected computer to the Internet, and watch it become a spyware motel in just a few short hours.

Spyware is probably the nastiest type of malware. To understand spyware, first you need to learn a little about how it started and how it grew into the vicious monster that it is now.

A Short History of Spyware.

Once upon a time during the last century, somebody smart realized that it would be pretty neat to make other people's computers secretly do what he wanted without asking permission from the computer owners. And so, spyware was born. In just a few years, spyware has grown into an entire industry that exists rather profitably on both sides of the law. Well, this history lesson is already getting longer than I intended, so enough of that.


What Spyware Can Do to You.

Some types of spyware are relatively benign. They behave like a pesky salesman pushing all kinds of products on you while you're trying to mind your own business. If you've ever tried to open your email but instead were bombarded by tons of pop-up windows, you know what I'm talking about. This type of spyware is often called adware for obvious reasons. Besides slowing down your computer and driving you insane, this type of spyware is not all that harmful.

And now for something rather scary. Not "The Scary Movie" - scary, but more like who-cleaned-out-my-bank-account scary. The spyware that you should really worry about is the spyware you don't see. Paradox? Perhaps. This type of software will literally spy on you while you're using your computer and will periodically "call home" to deliver the gathered information to the hacker. So, everything you do on your computer becomes accessible to an individual who is probably the last person on earth you would trust with this kind of information.

When people hear about this possibility, they are often shocked that their computer can actually do something like that. This is rather strange, because these are the same people who use the Web on a daily basis to retrieve text, pictures and videos from computers around the globe. If the information can come to their computer from another computer, why don't they believe that it can go in the opposite direction? Beats me.

Spyware Zoo.

Here are some of the more famous spyware programs. Don't feel bad if you don't see your 'favorite' one here, this list doesn't claim to be anything more than a small sample.

CoolWebSearch - With over 50 variations, this one is a rather typical representative of the venerable family of Internet browser hijackers. If your computer gets infected by this spyware, web browsing becomes a nightmare. Instead of visiting your favorite cat food website, you will be redirected to an online gambling outfit and instead of checking your email you will be asked to check out Well, I'm not going to even mention it here.

Internet Optimizer - This is a rather flattering name for a spyware program that redirects your browser to an advertisement when you try to login to a website where a password is required.

Adware.Hotbar - There is nothing hot about this spyware that messes up your browser toolbars and opens unwanted ads when you press toolbar buttons.

Various keyloggers - Their job description is simple. Record everything you type and send it to the hacker. He isn't particularly interested in your emails to friends about an upcoming get-together. What the hacker wants is your credit card, banking and other financial information. If you are using an infected computer for any of that, the hacker will be really happy and grateful.

FAQ.

Q: Is it possible to completely protect my computer from spyware?
A: Yes. If you never, ever, connect your computer to any kind of network, including the Internet.

Q: Is it possible to reasonably well protect my computer from spyware?
A: Yes. Here are some of the things that will dramatically decrease your chances of getting spyware:
  • Periodically run several anti-spyware programs. Why several? Because there are thousands of spyware programs and no one anti-spyware program can catch them all. Yes, it's that bad.
  • Use a personal firewall to control both incoming and outgoing Internet traffic from your computer. A good firewall works like a faithful dog that guards your house making it very difficult for somebody to get in or out without your permission.
  • Think twice about using any kind of file-sharing, peer-to-peer service such as Morpheus, Kazaa, etc. Better yet, just don't use them at all or have a dedicated computer specifically for the times when you feel adventurous.
  • If you have to install new software on your computer, make sure you download it from reputable sources. How do you know which sources are reputable and which aren't? Websites of large companies normally would not knowingly distribute spyware. That wouldn't make any business sense. On another side of the spectrum, a website owned by a guy named Bob that lets people download an illegal copy of Windows, is a risky proposition indeed.

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Updated on August 26, 2012.