Beware of Spyware removal software.
Identity theft and Internet fraud are buzzwords filling the news media these days. While I’m glad to see some attention finally being drawn to these problems, I’m concerned that users may inadvertently worsen their problems by the making of uninformed choices when seeking solutions to the problem. First, let’s make some distinctions between the various terms.
- Identity theft – The unauthorized use of someone else’s personal information in order to assume the full identity of that person. Assuming completely new identities is generally used to HIDE from the law. Most often times the identity of deceased individuals is used so as not to draw any undue attention to one’s self by possibly interfering in the personal affairs of someone living, thereby alerting authorities to the presence of the identity theft. Only in rare cases is it used to terrorize another.
- Identity fraud – The unauthorized use of someone else’s personal information for the sole purpose of defrauding them. This is what is taking place most commonly these days through a practice the scammers use known as phishing. The object is to lure individuals into divulging personal information they would not normally be inclined to do. “Account verification” and Nigerian money laundering schemes fall into this category.
- Internet fraud – A general classification for all fraudulent online activity which would include online auction fraud, etc.
The distinction between all three has become blurred by the news media as of late, often using the first two interchangeably. While one might argue “What’s the difference? They’re all bad.” the differences are worth noting. Also note that, while they can perform the same theft of information, Spyware is not a virus or worm. Viruses and worms replicate themselves on other computers in order to survive generally spread through email. Spyware is delivered by a specific source and usually accepted with the consent (albeit trickery) of the user. Both are difficult to eliminate.
What hasn’t changed very much, however, are the methods being used to gather personally identifiable information. As I mentioned earlier there’s the practice called phishing, tricking users into deliberately giving out their personal information either in an email response of via a web page disguised as something else. But another, even more invidious method, is to install unwanted software on users computers so as to spy on those users, track the web pages they view, collect information they type on the keyboard, then send all this information back to the spyware author.
If you have visited any less-than-reputable web sites and been bombarded with messages that you should agree to install their software to continue viewing that site, you know exactly what I’m talking about. No reputable web site will ever force browsers of that site to install software to keep browsing that site. Period. If you do visit these sites and ever make the mistake of clicking OK you may be in for a very unpleasant ride. At the very least you will probably have agreed to let them install software on your computer that feeds pop-up ads against your will that, oh by the way, also circumvents other anti-pop-up measures you may already be using. There’s no controlling what might appear in those pop-up ads. At worst you may have given an outside entity complete control over your computer and any personal information you may have stored on that computer.
Are there tools to help eliminate and prevent spyware? Yes, but you must be careful there too. Spyware authors were quick to seize the opportunity to trick users into installing spyware they thought was removing spyware. In fact, as I have discovered, the VAST MAJORITY of software claiming to be spyware removers are actually in themselves spyware. Take a quick peek atthis page and you’ll get some idea of just how bad the problem of finding legitimate spyware removers has become. There they list 120 known or highly suspect applications claiming to be spyware removers that are themselves spyware. Many have very legitimate and trustworthy sounding names. Many have very similar names to known legitimate programs. Therein lies the trap and the danger. Of the very few areas where I feel government intervention and legislation is appropriate, this one tops my list.
Of the very few I have found that are legitimate, here are the very best.
- AdAware SE – Published by Lavasoft. The free version allows users to clean up their computers. The paid version offers real time prevention.
- X-Cleaner Free – Published by X-Block. This freeware version is partially crippled but it does neutralize some potential risks the others miss. Like AdAware the paid version offers real time prevention but I doubt it’s as thorough as AdAware.
- Spybot Search & Destroy – Published by Patrick M. Kolla. Free for noncommercial use. Performs cleanup and some real time prevention.
- SpywareBlaster – Published by Javacool Software LLC. Completely free. Adds industrial strength real time spyware prevention that others like AdAware make you pay for.
- SpywareGuard – Also by Javacool. Also completely free. Adds browser hijack detection not found in SpywareBlaster. They recommend that users install both.
All of these applications have their strengths and weaknesses. Used together they have resolved every spyware infestation I have ever come across.
If all of this seems like too much effort to stay safe online, you’re absolutely correct. It is too much effort. If you’d like to be a member of the online community without being bothered with any of this spyware prevention nonsense, the vast majority of problems are solved by performing one simple step. Shop for anything other than Microsoft. It really is just that simple. I’ll be reviewing alternatives to Microsoft in upcoming newsletters.