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Security Spotlight: A Closer Look at Spyware

Part of iolo’s ongoing series exposing malicious software

A Closer Look at Spyware

With iolo’s Security Spotlight series, you can learn about the various malicious programs that infect computers, destroy data, and steal personal information, and get some valuable pointers on how to protect yourself.

Knowledge is power—knowing more about what the high-tech vandals are up to can give you a powerful defense against their tactics.

This part of the series takes a closer look at one of the most invasive and widely spread types of malware, spyware.

What is spyware?

Spyware is tracking software that silently installs itself on your computer, monitors (and sometimes controls) your internet activity, and then sends private information about you back to its creator.

The reasons why spyware programs are created can range from the benign (targeted advertising) to the malicious (criminal identity theft). But while the aims of spyware may vary, the effects are the same: compromised privacy and a computer overburdened with needless background processing. A slow and unstable computer is one of the most common signs of a spyware infection. (You can read more spyware symptoms below in “Signs of a spyware infection.”)

A little history

The term “spyware” was first used in the early 1990s to refer to programs used for surveillance or espionage. But since 2000, with the advent of data-mining advertising software, spyware has retained its current meaning: software that monitors and collects private data without the user’s knowledge or consent.

Spyware of today

Over the years, spyware has become much more widespread and more aggressive. Today, spyware goes beyond just monitoring and now can interfere with the control of your own computer: changing your browser’s home page, redirecting you to sites you didn’t want to see, installing distracting and unwanted toolbars. All these random and uncontrollable processes basically “hijack” your computer and needlessly sap its resources.

Some infamous spyware

  • BonziBuddy, a program released in 1999, displayed a purple monkey that was supposed to be a fun “traveling companion” as you browsed the internet. But BonziBuddy was reported to reset browser home pages, to track private information and send it to third parties, and to display incessant (and sometimes obscene) ads. In 2007, BonziBuddy earned the dubious distinction of being voted one of the “Top 10 Most Annoying Tech Products” by PC World readers.
  • Aurora, a program released in 2005 by Direct Revenue, was reported to display adware, thwart valid security programs, overwrite other spyware, and send infected computers up to 30 pop-up messages a day. The result was a rash of irate consumers experiencing daily computer crashes and barely usable PCs. In 2007, for what the U.S. Federal Trade Commission deemed deceptive practices, Direct Revenue settled with the government for $1.5 million; the company closed its doors later the same year.

Where does spyware come from?

The most common methods of spyware infection are through web downloads, e-mail, instant messaging, and peer-to-peer file sharing—unfortunately, all the same ways that you get valid applications. And today’s malware creators often bundle threats together—spyware will often install itself with other malicious programs, like viruses or trojans.

Signs of a spyware infection

Spyware is designed to install silently, and without the use of an anti-spyware program, it’s often difficult to detect. But there are some warning signs: if your computer is experiencing any of the following symptoms, it may be infected with spyware.

  • Endless pop-up windows keep displaying, even when you’re not on the web.
  • Your browser’s home page suddenly changes.
  • You’re redirected to web sites that are different from the address you typed in the browser.
  • New, unexpected toolbars appear in your web browser.
  • New, unexpected icons appear in your PC’s system tray.
  • Your computer suddenly takes a lot more time to open programs.
  • Your computer suddenly become unstable and crashes frequently.

How you can protect yourself

  • Don’t follow links in pop-up windows. Those ubiquitous pop-up windows are a common source of spyware—and if the pop-up is offering security software, you should be especially skeptical. Many of these pop-ups will try to lure you into installing “scareware,” dangerous programs that actually install the infections they claim to remove. Read more about scareware and other common online scams.One important tip: To close the pop-up, do not click on any of the buttons inside of the window, even if it’s a “Close” or “Exit” button—the creators of these pop-ups try to trick you into installing spyware, so they’ll design ALL of the buttons to install the infection. The safest way to close a pop-up is to click on the “X” icon on the top right side of the window’s title bar (or for a keyboard shortcut: click ALT + F4).
  • Be cautious of free programs. Some disreputable sites offer free tools, like browser toolbars, games, and screen savers, that are created with the sole intent of spreading spyware. Only download free programs from reputable sites and vendors that you trust.
  • Use anti-malware software. Even with the most diligent preventative measures, spyware can still find its way onto your computer. The best bet is to install an anti-spyware or anti-malware program, keep it up-to-date, and run scans regularly.

How System Shield® can protect you

iolo’s System Shield® combines both antivirus and antispyware protection, to detect and eradicate all types of malicious files: spyware as well as dozens of other types of malware. Some highlights of System Shield:

Flexible options for scans System Shield’s malware scans can run automatically when your computer isn’t being used—you don’t have to think about it—and you also can run scans whenever you want to: a smart choice after you download files.

Automated protection 2 ways

For total peace of mind, System Shield offers two automated protection features:

  • Real-time is an invisible form of protection that runs quietly behind-the-scenes to check files as they’re opened, changed, moved, copied, and saved—a critical defense against malware silently making changes to your PC.

  • Email protection automatically scans email messages and attachments before they’re received or sent—both you and the people you communicate with are protected.

Safe quarantine System Shield’s Quarantine is a safe holding area that gives you total control over suspicious files. The Quarantine prevents infections from causing any damage, but still allows you to keep the files you know are safe.

Up-to-date malware definitions Old definition files can’t protect you against the most recent attacks—and the criminals come up with newly designed malware every day. System Shield updates its definitions in real-time as threats emerge, sometimes even 8-10 times in a single day, based on the latest research from iolo Labs.

iolo UptoSpeed

UpToSpeed™ is iolo's ongoing article series written by PC experts for everyday computer users. Each article is packed with easy tips and practical advice on the latest issues affecting computers to help you get the most out of your PC.

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