In this episode we will see how to thwart the spyware pushers. We've looked at their tricks, how they foist their goods on unprepared users and make it difficult to remove. We've looked at the money trail including who funds spyware and who profits from it. The next question is, how can internet users fight back? There is no single answer, but there are many measures that can be taken.
Become aware and educated about spyware. I come in contact with people on a regular basis that have only a vague notion of what spyware is and how it can affect them. A lot remain uneducated about spyware until they get hit with it. They may notice a gradual decrease in performance of their shiny new computer. It becomes slower and slower and unexpected things happen. They become overwhelmed with pop-ups and one day their usual homepage changes to something totally unfamiliar. They might find their searches going to strange sites or that another search page has taken over. In severe case, the computer may become nearly unusable. For an entertaining and insightful illustration, check the Brady Bunch does spyware and adware from SpywareGuide. The story paints very real picture of what can happen to unprepared users and makes a good point about those EULAs at the same tine. Get angry about spyware and spread the word. Help educate your neighbors, friends and family.
Four years ago, I was new to the internet and uneducated about spyware. I went to a site that I shouldn't have and was suddenly overwhelmed with pop-ups happening faster than I could close them. I probably clicked on at least one in my haste to stop them and I got my first spyware infection, the notorious and hated lop hijacker. I had no idea what to do but I found a computer help forum and posted there. After I got rid of lop, I started reading everything I could find about spyware. I was angry. I felt violated and outraged. I decided to fight back.
The next step is protection. Become armed and dangerous. A well protected computer is a threat to the spyware pushers because they can't invade it and make money. I know some readers are thinking "use Linux" or "get a Mac". While those are good suggestions, they aren't practical for many people. I like Windows and I like Internet Explorer, in fact I much prefer it over any of the alternative browsers. Don't be shocked. I don't get infected unless I'm deliberately doing so in VMware or Shadowmode. I don't use p2p, I don't surf unsavory sites and I don't download anything from unfamiliar sites. I don't click on links or attachments in email. An alternative browser is a good idea for most people. although not foolproof.
How do you become safe and protected? It takes a multi-faceted approach, including for some, changing their online behavior. Read "How did I get infected in the first place?", a classic by TonyKlein, a well known figure in the anti-spyware community. It doesn't take a lot of money, or any money for that matter, to be protected. Absolute musts: a software firewall and an antivirus program. There are free ones that work very quite well. All the new computers I've seen recently come with a trial of a security suite or antivirus software and some with an anti-spyware app. For someone who doesn't want to research apps, I'd say when the free trial expires purchase a subscription as long as the applications are not causing any problems. The Windows firewall is better than nothing but it doesn't monitor outbound connections to the internet (although that will change with Windows Vista), and I always recommend a software firewall, even if you have a router, which also does not monitor outbound traffic.
The most important thing users need to do is keep Windows updated, no matter which version. If you run Windows XP, by all means get Service Pack 2. Now! For a user who doesn't want to be bothered checking for updates, turn on automatic updates. Make it easy on yourself. Other measures: Use an alternative browser and lock down Internet Explorer. See detailed tutorial here. Yes, even if you use Firefox or Opera, you still need to lock down Internet Explorer because some applications launch IE and the alternative browsers can be exploited as well.
There are a number of other measures and applications to talk about for safety and protection online. Instead of making this post a book, I'll go into detail next time on anti-spyware and other protective applications, many of which are free. keep in mind that every time you prevent a spyware installation, you are fighting back and the bad guys are losing money. The time you spend protecting your computer and maintaining that protection is an investment in your future, preventing lost time, productivity and possibly loss of money if you had pay someone to clean up your computer. Think of it as preventive medicine. In this case the patient is a valuable possession, your computer.