You can't be too careful on the Internet, especially if you download, install and run plenty of programs. But if you're not cautious, someone could be accessing your computer, viewing your files or even discovering your passwords. Even worse, you could end up a victim of identity theft, not knowing how a person in some far-off country got hold of your credit card number or changed the contents of your Website.
Spyware is the term for this threat to computer users. Basically, spyware is software that resides on your computer and sends out vital information like your surfing and buying habits. Some spyware even sends your passwords to advertisers, or worse, hackers. It comes in the form of cookies from Websites, ads in installed programs and files bundled up with software that you download from the Web. Protection from spyware is easy and effective (not to mention cheap).
Do You Have Spyware?
Signs that you have spyware on your computer are pop-ups that appear as if from out of nowhere even when you're not connected to the Internet, frequent flickering of your monitor screen, a hijacked browser, a slower than ever computer or unrecognizable behavior of various programs.
The first step towards a spyware-free computer is to find any existing spyware on your computer and remove it. The next, is to make sure that you're protected against all existing and future threats.
Spybot Search & Destroy
Spybot Search & Destroy is a free software program achieves this threefold function. It scans your system against a list of known threats, removes any that are found, and then immunizes your system against further such installations. It also has options to block suspicious downloads, keep control over your browser window and even block Websites that are known to install spyware. It's available for download from http://www.safer-networking.org.
Another very good program that shields your computer from various threats is Spyware Blaster, available for a free download from http://www.javacoolsoftware.com/spywareblaster.html. It guards your system against its predefined database of identified threats. Coupled with Spybot S&D, Spyware Blaster provides the ultimate protection against spyware.
Another program that you need on your system will guard you specifically against adware. Adware comes bundled up in user programs that you install from the Web, and monitors your buying habits. An example of a program filled with adware is KaZaa. This adware tracks your usage and sends it to advertisers who get information on your buying behavior and Internet usage patterns. Ad-Aware is a very good program for adware removal and can be downloaded from http://www.lavasoftusa.com/software/adaware/ for free or for a fee depending on how you plan to use it.
In addition, it's always advisable to have an up-to-date antivirus in place, as well as a spam-blocker and pop-up stopper. You could also get a firewall to protect your system against hackers or crackers.
And, if you're overly paranoid or have very sensitive information on your computer, use these solutions for an even higher level of protection:
Turn off Windows Messenger Service using a messenger control plug-in for Ad-Aware. The Windows Messenger Service is not the same as instant messaging and is available to users with Windows XP or 2000. Many advertisers are using this service to send pop-ups to users running these operating systems. To download the plug-in, go to http://www.lavasoftnews.com/theeye/i12/a2.html and click on the Download Now button at the bottom of the page.
Block Bad Web Sites
You can also block many Websites that are known to send spyware to your system. You can do this with the Spybot Search & Destroy software. For this, start the program in advanced mode, click Tools and then Hosts file. At the top of the window, click Add Spybot S&D Hosts list. This will result in fewer pop-ups and faster browsing too.
And lastly, always stay updated. Update your spyware programs every few days for more that may have been discovered, and always keep a tab on what you're downloading and whether it's from a secure location. You can never be completely safe, but if you're online often, it's best to take these precautionary measures.