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Identity Theft - Spyware and Malware
::Explanation::      ::Detection::      ::Solution::      ::Prevention::

:: Explanation

Spyware is a type of software that can install advertising, collect personal information, or change your computer's configuration, without your consent (or even your knowledge). Whilst not all software that does this is bad it is important to know the difference between that which you agree to and that which has installed itself on your system covertly.

Most spyware can be broken up into two major groups: adware and malware.

The majority of spyware is adware. The purpose of an adware program is to capture so-called “anonymous” data for targeted advertising. Adware is usually just an annoyance, but in some cases can cause greater difficulties. The less common second classification of spyware programs is called malware. Malware is any program designed to cause problems with the normal use of a computer or for the user of that computer. Examples of malware include viruses, Trojan horse programs, and certain forms of hijacking spyware. These forms of spyware are written to collect personal information such as passwords, credit card numbers, and social security numbers for identity theft and fraud. Many of these can change default program settings to allow an attacker access to the computer, or monitor a user's keystrokes to gain information. The information is then sent off to the attacker to use as they see fit.

Why spyware is used

Spyware can be a very good marketing tool. Companies which produce spyware gain lucrative contracts from many companies for the service they provide. Targeted advertisements are very effective. Because the applications target users of a particular site, they can be helpful to the users of that site by directing them to other, similar sites and services. Unfortunately, like most other things online, it is easily abused. This aggravates users; some feel that they are under attack, and others are offended by some of the materials that appear in pop-ups from adware and spyware. Over-reaching advertisements don’t benefit the advertiser either. If no one clicks on the pop-up, the advertiser is wasting advertising dollars.

:: Detection

Spyware can be a huge annoyance to users. Created pop-up ads often appear – seemingly at random – when web pages are opened or closed. This can cause hours of wasted effort because many of the pop-up ads create more pop-up ads as they are closed, in an ever expanding cycle. One solution to this problem, a pop-up blocker, is detailed later.

Several problems present themselves when a user has spyware on their system

:: Pornographic advertising

Spyware which creates targeted advertisements can be a problem. The targeted ads will be created from information such as websites and advertisements visited previously. If an adult user and a minor are using the same computer, this can be a problem. If the adult user visits a pornographic site, the minor could receive targeted advertisements which contain pornographic material. In some cases the targeting of ads can be for pornographic advertisements without anyone having visited adult sites.

:: Computer resource hijacking

Some spyware allows the unauthorized use of computer resources. This can include running programs while a PC is not busy. However, increased use of a computer processor increases the wear and tear on the components, and reduces its functional lifetime. In some cases resources are used for malicious purposes, such as mailing spam or viruses, or actually using the computer to commit crimes.

:: Spyware errors

Programming errors in the way a piece of spyware is written can also cause problems. A piece of spyware may expire, yet keep trying to send information to a disconnected server. This would send error messages to the user, causing worry and irritation.

:: Losing control of your PC

Spyware can cause a user to lose control of their PC. Changes to the web browser's homepage and to other settings can be made without the user's knowledge or permission. These changes can include turning off security protection so the spyware can communicate with external resources, making them potentially very dangerous.

:: Removing the spyware installation

Removing spyware can be a huge chore. Many spyware programs offer an “uninstallation” option which either does not work as advertised or actually installs more spyware.

:: Solution

Once you have detected spyware with the programs listed below, you may also use them to remove it. Very rarely, more direct action is needed to remove a piece of spyware.

Removing spyware is often not as complicated as one might think

Two reliable spyware detectors/cleaners are:

  • SpyBot http://www.safer-networking.org
    With SpyBot, after you update by clicking on “Search for updates”, you can select “Check for Problems” to scan your computer for spyware. It will then allow you to “fix selected problems.”
  • Ad-aware http://www.lavasoft.de
    In Ad-aware, first update by clicking on “Check for updates now.” Then select “Scan now” to scan your computer. After the scan is done, select the spyware objects you wish to remove and click on next to complete the process. These objects will be quarantined in a backup directory *, which you can save or delete as you see fit.

* Note that SpyBot will sometimes detect the Ad-aware directory as containing spyware. Ad-aware does not contain any spyware, those detections concern the aforementioned backup directory.

:: Prevention

There are several steps you can take to prevent spyware. The first and most effective method of prevention is to never install applications from a Web site unless you know exactly what that application does and what company created it. This also applies to applications downloaded from the Web.

Tips to keep your computer free of spyware

Disable third party cookies

“Cookies” are used by many pieces of spyware or Web sites to watch where the user has previously been and to record information for future visits. They reside in your Web browser's cache directory, and each is tied to a specific Web site or service.

Link required here to a page on cookie disabling (all browsers)

Enable prompting for software installation.

By default, Internet Explorer (many spyware problems are known to target Internet Explorer specifically) will allow the installation of ActiveX controls on your computer. These include such spyware products such as “Gator,” a well known spyware application. Without these more restrictive settings, spyware can be installed without your knowledge just by visiting some sites. With the following settings turned on, spyware must be authorized to be installed. That means that you need to grant permission by clicking OK or Yes or something like that when your computer asks you if it’s ok to install. That gives you the chance to see it, and delete it or prevent its installation. Note that these protections only work for spyware installed directly from the Web.

For spyware in e-mails or spam, you may not get that warning. A good rule of thumb for e-mail is that if you don’t know the person sending it to you, and it contains only a vague reference, part of a word, or something you don’t use in the subject, then you should probably delete it unopened. E-mail can open small programs that connect your computer to a Web site or server to let others know you are looking at that e-mail – which in turn gets you more spam. It’s a vicious and hard-to-break cycle. To change your settings in Internet Explorer to reduce spyware installation without your knowledge, read on.

To disable automatic installation of programs in Internet Explorer, take these steps:

1. Click on the Tools menu in Internet Explorer, and then on Security.
2. Make sure the setting is set to “Medium” or “Custom.”
3. Click on the Custom Level button.
4. Under the 'ActiveX controls and plugins' area, select these options:

  • Download signed ActiveX controls – select Prompt
  • Download Unsigned ActiveX controls – select Disable
  • Initialize and script ActiveX controls not marked as safe – select Disable
  • Run ActiveX controls and plugins – select Prompt *
  • Script ActiveX controls marked safe for scripting – select Prompt *

* The last two options may cause annoyance, as they will prompt you to run the ActiveX application each time. These can be set to “enable” if they cause too many problems, but will be less secure. The first three should be set exactly as marked.

Don't run file-swapping software

Most free file-sharing applications contain spyware. If you install one of these programs, you run the risk of getting bundled spyware. While not all file-sharing sites have this problem, many do. If you must use file-sharing sites, check for online reviews to see which ones are best to use and contain less (or no) spyware.

Read the EULA

EULA stands for “End User License Agreement” and is the large block of legal text that is displayed before each program. While time consuming, reading these notices can let you know if spyware is installed on a system. Unfortunately, often times this is impossible or very difficult because of the length or complexity of the EULA in question. Again, online reviews can help with this.

Set your Web browser's history to one day

This will remove session information which can be used by spyware programs for tracking information.

Link required here to a page on history settings (all browsers)

Use a firewall product

There are two methods of running a firewall, through hardware or software:

  • Hardware firewalls do not usually need to be upgraded, and can easily be added to a network. They take the form of a physical device which is plugged into the user's home network between their outside network connection and computer inside.
  • Software based firewalls are run through a program on the computer, and are somewhat more flexible.

Use an antivirus product

Modern antivirus scanners now detect and remove many pieces of spyware, in addition to other forms of malware. Remember to keep your antivirus program up to date, as new viruses come out daily. It is a good idea to start up your computer, then update your antivirus program before you check email or visit any Web sites. Many people update weekly, but these days, daily is a good idea – and it only takes a few moments.

Install a pop-up blocker

This can prevent many of the pop-up ads created if spyware is installed. There are many free products specifically designed to block pop-ups



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