Avoiding Spyware

I know that you don’t want to hear about this, but I have helped so many people with spyware that I want to review some basic precautions you can take to protect yourself.
Motivation

The first question you might ask is where does spyware come from? Some of it is malicious users who want to highlight perceived deficiencies in software, but the majority of this software has a profit motive (doesn’t everything?). Spyware can track your keystrokes and send password information. Or, it might just be a sleazy Marketer who wants to track your every movement. Regardless of the motivation, these programs affect your computer’s performance in a very negative manner. A great description and history of spyware is available from CERT.
Protection

The first line of defense is your web browser. If you are using Internet Explorer, I strongly suggest you Firefox or Opera. These browsers are more secure by design (missing ActiveX), and have the additional benefit of being very portable (read my thoughts on backups to understand the benefits.) Although some websites will render incorrectly, I’ve found this a very, very small price to pay for peace of mind.

Sometimes, these defenses aren’t enough. What else can I use to clear up some aggressive issues? First, run your Virus Scanner to see if that picks up anything. After that, I suggest a one-two punch of SpyBot Search & Destroy and Ad-Aware. These are spyware scanners that find tracking cookies, web bugs, keyloggers and other browser exploits. Each of these programs will find bots & spyware that the other program misses. I understand Microsoft also has an anti-spyware package. I would suggest against using it at this point as Microsoft will label some “spyware” companies as partners and not flag their programs. I think unaffiliated 3rd parties are a bit more trustworthy in these circumstances.
It’s hopeless

If you are still reading this, then you probably ran the scanners, found programs, and had them cleaned. You felt pretty good. But the next time you booted up, BAM, everything came back. These things are not easy to get rid of. To really clean out your system, first boot into Safe Mode. This should keep the programs from starting & re-registering themselves. Now you can run S&D and Ad-Aware with the knowledge that these bugs will stay gone.

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