Your anti-spyware campaign

* Get rid of unwelcome intruders on your computer

Attention network managers: get out your wallets.  If you haven't done so already, it's time to buy and install a good anti-spyware application on your office and home PCs.  The problem with spyware is becoming so pervasive that you need to take action before your individual users do; they could end up doing more harm than good.

"Spyware" is the general term given to software that surreptitiously makes its way onto your computer.  It may also be called "adware," "scumware," "malware," or other equally sordid-sounding names.  No matter what you call it, spyware is an unwelcome intruder in your computing environment.

IDC estimates that two out of every three PCs are infected with spyware.  While a hefty percentage of those devices are probably owned by consumers, spyware is not strictly a consumer problem.  A recent IDC survey of 600 organizations showed that spyware is No. 4 on the list of threats to enterprise network security.

Dell thinks the problem is even more widespread, estimating that 90% of all PCs are infected with spyware.  Calls relating to spyware now make up 20% of all calls to Dell's technical support lines, compared to just 1% to 2% of all calls in August 2003.  It's clear that consumers and companies alike are concerned about software that is intended to log your keystrokes, steal personal or corporate information, enable identity theft, track your online activity, and/or sell such information to anyone willing to pay for it.

Do a Google search on "anti-spyware" and you'll turn up hundreds of links offering just as many products.  The question is, which of those products can be trusted?  In some cases, software that bills itself as anti-spyware is actually PLACING the malevolent code on your PC.  This is one way in which the average PC user can get himself into even more trouble.

Eric Howes, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has made it a mission to warn computer users about rogue anti-spyware software.  He operates a Web site called The Spyware Warrior.  On this site, Howes lists dozens of software products that "do not provide proven, reliable anti-spyware protection," or that "may use unfair, deceptive, high pressure sales tactics and false positives to scare up sales from gullible, confused users."  Be sure to consult his site at http://www.spywarewarrior.com/ before you buy or install any product.

It's important that a good anti-spyware application (or two) be a complement to your total security approach, working alongside the anti-virus software that guards your network of PCs every day.  For this reason, we are starting to see a consolidation of anti-spyware vendors.  For example, Computer Associates recently purchased PestPatrol, a leading anti-spyware vendor, and Microsoft has just announced plans to purchase Giant Company Software. Enterprises want to deal with just one or two security companies that address many needs, not numerous small companies that each has niche products.  In a year or two, I think we'll see fewer anti-spyware products on the market, but those that do remain should be quite effective and trustworthy.

Let's get back to those statistics of two out of three PCs being infected, or nine out of 10, as the case may be.  If this is true, then you're likely to find many infected PCs in your home or enterprise.  What can you do about it?  The best bet is to follow the advice of The Spyware Warrior on http://spywarewarrior.com/asw-features.htm#infested :

1. Clean the PC as best as you can.  The Web site has free tools you can download and use to remove the anti-spyware software.  Even after removing the software, there could be residual effects, so next you should...

2. Visit a spyware removal forum, a number of which are listed on Spyware Warrior's Web site.  Volunteers on the forums will suggest how to remove the unwanted remnants.  If you provide them with details of what's going on with the PC, they'll provide you with removal instructions to help you reclaim your PC.  Then you must...

3. Take steps to prevent a re-infection of spyware.  Install a reputable anti-spyware program and monitor what's happening with your PC.

Spyware and its derivatives are a costly problem.  The cost to prevent the problem is negligible compared to the cost to remove the unwanted software, or the cost of suffering a loss when a keystroke logger steals your private information.  The time to take action is before you're a victim.

Linda Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company.  You can write to her at mailto:Linda.Musthaler@currid.com

Learn more about this topic

The Spyware Warrior

Lavasoft, maker of Ad-aware

Computer Associates, maker of PestPatrol

Webroot, maker of Spy Sweeper

Safer Networking, maker of Spybot 

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