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Breaking, Entering Your PC

Spyware, the newest and nastiest online plague, can paralyze or commandeer a computer. Help is hard to find, but it's out there.

November 26, 2004|Terry McDermott | Times Staff Writer

It can, and often does, start something like this:

You're online, maybe searching for a specific piece of information, maybe just cruising the Web. I was investigating new search technologies that were advertised as useful in dealing with variations in the spelling of names and had read that Lycos, a pre-Google Internet portal and search engine, had developed some.

I found links for Lycos and clicked on one. That was the beginning. Within minutes, my computer was swamped with advertisements -- pop-ups, pop-unders, pop-all-overs. There were so many I couldn't close them before others started appearing. I had to shut the computer down.

When it restarted, my Web browser had a new pornographic home page, and soon another flood of advertisements was underway. This time, I was able to get rid of most of it and resume working.

It went on for days. The blizzard of ads sometimes thinned, sometimes thickened. At times, there were so many that the computer couldn't process them all and froze. Every time I restarted, my home page was reset to the pornographic site. Every time I tried to do a Google search, a Lycos search engine appeared instead. New items for services called Bargain Buddies and Deal Helper were added to my Web favorites list.

I deleted these entries, but they would mysteriously reappear. Once, when I was being buried yet again by ads, I heard my computer modem dialing a telephone number. My computer is connected to a broadband Internet access service, so the only time I ever used the modem was to send and receive faxes. I couldn't imagine why the modem was dialing. More to the point, I couldn't stop it.

I have been using PCs since 1985 and have installed hard drives, operating systems, memory, CD-ROM drives and countless software programs. I've written some rudimentary programs to automate common word-processing tasks. I vainly considered myself a computer sophisticate.

So what did I do? I cursed and screamed. I tried to turn the modem off with software switches. Finally, I did what any sophisticated computer user would do -- I yanked the telephone cord out of the wall, then began wildly deleting every suspicious file I could find on my system.

That worked to a limited extent. I installed a pop-up ad blocker and downloaded free programs that were supposed to rid me of the plague that had descended.

Most days, I was able to slog along and there were even times I thought the fixes had worked. But the computer was still agonizingly slow, and the ads and the hijacked Web searches invariably reappeared. Then a month later, I received a bill for $25 from some company I had never heard of. It was for the telephone call my computer had made, to Britain it turned out.

The Internet, at once one of the wonders of the modern world and one of its least likable neighborhoods, has suffered a series of afflictions, scams and perversions throughout its brief history. The latest and in many ways most frustrating is the one I was now facing -- spyware.

Spyware is a broad category of software distributed online, usually without a user's knowledge, to millions of personal computers around the world, often crippling them in the process.

It includes several subcategories, including:

* Loggers -- programs that surreptitiously monitor a computer's use, recording every keystroke, and sending that information to the spyware's manufacturer.

* Adware -- programs that use the data generated by loggers to send advertisements to individual computers.

* Dialers -- programs that cause a computer's modem to call long distance, frequently international.

As an unwanted invader, spyware has some things in common with e-mail viruses, but differs in two important ways.

Viruses can be stopped by relatively inexpensive software. Spyware distribution is more devious and often almost impossible to stop. It is also much more difficult to find and remove from afflicted machines.

Also, although spyware, like viruses, often seems pointless, it usually is not. It is driven by one of the oldest of human motivations -- profit.

In most cases, someone is being paid to make your computer useless. That is the special irritation experienced by afflicted computer owners: Someone is profiting from their misery. Or at least, that was the special irritation that got me.

I started digging into the innards of my operating system, looking for clues. Whenever I found files I could not determine the authenticity or purpose of, I got rid of them. In the process, I sometimes got rid of necessary files. I was slowly breaking the legitimate functions of my machine.

I contacted tech support at various software and hardware manufacturers. Mainly, they suggested I wipe out my computer's hard drives and start from scratch.

On the days my computer let me, I searched the Web for the origins of my problems. I felt like a lonesome settler in the Wild West, besieged by outlaws. Where was the posse when you needed it?

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