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Beware of the Web's voyeurs

Software known as spyware can track your every keystroke. How dangerous is that? Sometimes very.

September 23, 2004|Brett Levy | Times Staff Writer

In a hushed voice, a blushing co-worker asked for help with his computer. The embarrassed editor explained that immediately after launching his web browser, he turned off his monitor in panic. That's because a huge pornographic image commandeered the entire screen with no obvious way to get rid of it.

My co-worker was a victim of a browser hijack, something that is occurring with alarming regularity in the home and workplace. Such hijacks are one of the symptoms of insidious software known as spyware.

Spyware applications originally were intended to help legitimate online companies track the shopping and browsing habits of Americans. But they have become a weapon for unsavory hucksters hoping to persuade Americans to buy products they do not want.

Although spam may be no more than a nuisance, spyware can steal a computer user's credit card number or render a computer unusable.

"This will not kill you. It will annoy you. It will slow you down and steal your bandwidth," says David Stang, a vice president of research at Islandia, N.Y.-based Computer Associates. "This is death by a thousand mosquito bites."

Preventing spyware is not easy. It's even more difficult to remove from an infected computer. But understanding the problem can help you protect your data and computer.

What can spyware do? With about 25,000 pests and 120,000 related files floating around cyberspace, according to Stang, it's tough to get a handle on what each spyware program does. Many benignly monitor your online shopping habits and display annoying pop-up ads. A more aggravating spyware program may change your Yahoo or Google home page to another site no matter how many times you try to fix it. It might also create new bookmarks on your "Favorites" menu.

More dangerous spyware applications -- often called malware -- infect your computer like a virus, causing favorite programs to crash. In worst-case scenarios, everything you type on a keyboard is recorded, including credit card numbers and passwords, and then e-mailed to identity theft rings.

Infection is quick and invisible. The simple act of clicking on spam and certain pop-up ads can install malicious software or change vital settings on your computer. Free music, games and programs may be laden with computer nasties.

Spyware is generally legal (in every state except Utah) as long as its original intent is to monitor browsing and shopping habits.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous marketers and criminals have hidden their software under the spyware cloak to avoid being called viruses. Some spyware authors get paid about 15 cents a hit, while virus writers seem to be more motivated by the thrill of hacking into computer networks or disrupting corporations and government.

But the worst spyware is being written by worldwide teams of "four to five programmers whaling on a keyboard crunching this stuff out," Stang says. For these folks, spyware writing is big business.

How can you tell whether your computer is infected? Although a browser hijack is blatantly obvious, most infections go unnoticed. Repeated crashing may also provide a clue. A suddenly slow Internet connection is another sign.

To be sure, go to spyware-fighting sites such as www.pestpatrol.com or www.webroot.com, maker of Spy Sweeper, and run their free online scan to check your home computer.

To prevent infections, never click on pop-up ads or the body of spam e-mails. Try closing unwanted pop-up ads using Alt-F4 in Windows, which is a keystroke combination that decreases the risk you'll click on a disguised button to close a window.

Keeping a computer up to date with the latest security patches is essential. Microsoft offers free updates at http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com, and free CDs can be ordered for users on slow-speed dial-up.

Windows recently announced the release of XP's Service Pack 2, which provides additional security measures such as a limited spyware blocker and a firewall. What do you do if your computer is infected? Although there are numerous spyware-blocking programs on the market, most offer limited protection until the technology improves. Their strength is removing spyware after it's on the computer. Spy Sweeper was rated this year as one of the best programs by PC Magazine. McAfee, Spybot, McAfee Internet Security 2004 and PestPatrol also received high marks, but Norton anti-virus was not up to the task of fighting spyware.

"The best products may not be good enough; the worst products may do harm," Stang says.

After a computer is compromised to the point of not running, it's best to call a qualified expert who can salvage data and rebuild your hard drive.

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Brett Levy is a systems analyst at the Los Angeles Times.

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