Sunday, December 18, 2005

‘Tis the Season… for Spyware!

‘Tis the Season… for Spyware!
- by David Matthews 2

Christmas is coming, the coffers are getting fat…
Please put some spyware in the old man’s hat.

Okay, so I’m no Charles Dickens, but I am pretty good at seeing certain trends, and one of them is fast upon us.

Christmastime is always the best time for people to get computers. Stores are eager to pick up sales, people are willing to spend more money than at any other time of the year, and with a new Windows operating system on the horizon, computer prices are lower than they have ever been before. So if you’ve never had a computer before, or if you need to get a new computer, now is of course the BEST time to get one.

Unfortunately Christmastime is also the perfect season for really nasty and unscrupulous cyber-people to strike. They like to call themselves "intelligence collectors" or "marketing specialists" or "information marketers" or "digital research specialists" or any number of cute corporate-sounding names that make what they do seem innocuous. But we know them best as virus-writers, spyware-senders, Adware-senders, and SPAMMERS.

Christmastime is the perfect storm for these digital parasites. They know that we’re eager to spend money now more than any other time of the year. They know that there are plenty of markets willing to pay them to hawk their wares. And most importantly, they know that with all of these people getting new computers, there is a fresh crop of cyber-newbies that are the easiest targets to their plans.

Once upon a time, virus-writers were interested in how much chaos they could cause. They were looking to take over as many systems as possible so they could use them to destroy other computer networks and prove just how "powerful" they are. Some are still doing that, but the bulk of the virus-writers now call themselves "marketers" and they sell themselves as being able to sell a client’s wares to the masses. They’re not interested in destroying your computer, per se, because that would hurt their bottom line. Instead what these people want to do is to take over your computer so that it becomes their advertising machine.

Here’s a little oddity for you… you buy a new computer, you sign up with a new service like AOL or Earthlink, you start surfing the mainstream websites, and a few weeks later… that ultra-fast computer is suddenly getting slower and slower. Not only that, but little pop-up windows start to appear, even though you have a whole plethora of pop-up blocking programs in place. You could even be offline and those pop-ups will magically appear!

Congratulations! You’ve got Adware!

I’m sure that some of you are scratching your heads, wondering just how the hell this happened. You didn’t surf to any strange websites. You didn’t open up any stupid email programs. You didn’t visit the newsgroups… if you even knew what or where newsgroups are.

And that’s the thing… Spyware and Adware senders aren’t lurking in the fringes anymore. They’re hiding in plain sight in mainstream websites. You know those otherwise innocuous ads that you see on the news websites and the weather websites and the sports websites? Those ads don’t really reside on the website. Those ads really reside on a separate web server, which the web page calls upon when you download their page. (Note: every webpage that you visit is actually downloaded to your computer, albeit temporarily.) Hidden programming tells your browser to download all of the programs needed to "best view" that page, and imbedded in that programming is usually a Java script or ActiveX control that also tells your computer to download the Adware or Spyware program. The next thing you know, your anti-virus program has been disabled, your anti-spyware program has been disabled, and you’re getting more pop-ups than ever before because all of those pop-up blocking tools on all of those browser toolbars people love to give you have been bypassed.

It’s also important to note that the people who run those mainstream websites with all of the Adware often have no idea what’s going on. All they know is that these advertising companies are paying them to put up their ads, and possibly letting them know how many people visit their site. And if they DO know that these advertising companies are doing more than just sending ads, then they’re usually nonchalant about it. After all, it’s not coming from THEIR servers, so why should they be concerned?

So what do you need to do?

Well for those of you who are getting a new computer this holiday season (or for any time) here are a few things that should be added to your "must get" list along with the obligatory bushel of batteries.

Invest in an anti-virus program and check it regularly! America Online users can get a free version of McAfee’s VirusScan, but they have to manually look for it and download it to their computer. It sucks, but at least they’re offering it for free. Be sure to check with your service provider to see if they offer any kind of free security packages. If not, then make sure that your new computer includes some kind of security package. If it doesn’t, then buy one. It’s worth the cost. And once you do get it, make sure that you check it regularly so that you know that it is not only updated but also working. Remember that some Spyware and Adware programs are designed to disable anti-virus programs if you’re not vigilant about their use.

Download "Spybot Search & Destory" and "Ad-Aware"! These are FREE programs that look for and remove Spyware, Adware, and even certain tracking cookies that can be used to track your web surfing habits. And like the anti-virus programs, these are programs that you have to be vigilant about in regards to updates and regular scans of your hard drive.

Download Mozilla’s Firefox Browser and the "Adblock" extension! This really should be your preferred browser for any kind of personal web surfing, especially for visiting the so-called "mainstream" websites. The people at Mozilla are the same ones who created the original Netscape browser (before they sold it to America Online) and elements of that browser were later incorporated into Internet Explorer. The Firefox browser is completely FREE and can be customized in ways that neither IE or Netscape could. One unique extension is called "Adblock", and it is probably the most effective tool for online users, because it allows you to block images and certain scripts that pertain to advertising. You can even use it to block whole servers, so that no advertising can ever reach your computer from that server. Not only do web pages upload faster once the advertising has been removed, but it also blocks the commands that would order your computer to download spyware. (You may also want to consider using Mozilla’s Thunderbird email program, since it also has built-in Spam-blocking tools and the same level of customization as Firefox.)

Of course as more and more people jump to Firefox, the greater the chances are that Adware and Spyware creators will come up with ways to sneak their wares in through this browser as well. But right now having this edge over the digital parasites helps keep your computer clear of their programs.

Adding these things to your new computer’s gift list will help make sure that your holiday present doesn’t become an expensive holiday paperweight by New Year’s Day. And of course the best part is that most of these software toys are FREE… which is good because getting your computer cleared of that nasty Spyware, Adware, and viruses is pretty expensive. You certainly don’t want to be spending even more money than you have to.

And for those of you who are already online, now is certainly the perfect time to make sure that your online protection tools ARE already in place and updated. Remember that this is the time of year that the "marketers" have been waiting for, because it’s Christmastime for them when they can usurp your computer.


David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in Georgia. He has been around computers in one form or another since the 1980’s.

This article may be distributed freely only so long as it is reprinted in its entirety, with all proper credit given to the author.

2005 – Get Brutal Productions