How Spyware Took the Next-Gen Threat Crown

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Spyware used to be defined as applets, cookies or any other method used to collect statistics on your browsing habits. Gone are the days of such a benign interpretation. Spyware has evolved into a problem that surpasses those posed by traditional worms, viruses and Trojans.

Today, these once relatively innocuous apps have evolved from anonymous, and often invisible, traffic statistics gatherers into beasts capable of crippling your PC's performance by installing unwanted toolbars, pop-up ads, desktop icons and many other nuisances.

If that's not bad enough, some Spyware will modify system files, change security zone settings, keylog your sessions, spawn Trojans and change start page settings. Today, the term "spyware" is, in my opinion, synonymous with virus, and as usual, you have been left to deal with this on your own.

How did this happen?

Like many age-old schemes, the desire for easy money has driven spyware development into the darkest corners of the Internet. Unscrupulous individuals use flaws in the Windows operating system in combination with Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer, to distribute their wares, or more accurately, infect your machine.

Countless types of applications, browser helper objects, cookies and bots are now competing for your finite system resources in order to pitch pop ups, report your internet activity, modify OS settings and steal personal information. Simple site statistics are no longer sufficient to sustain the beast.

Spyware companies are making millions of dollars by evading laws, finding loopholes, exploiting vulnerabilities and making their products resistant to removal. When compared to what we all know as a traditional virus, spyware is much worse because viruses are not nearly as tenacious when it comes to re-propagation or resistance to removal.

This may sound like the work of evil, globally dispersed hacking networks but many spyware developers are operating within U.S. borders without so much as a hiccup from the legal system. Although as of late, the spyware problem has generated some rumblings on Capitol Hill.

Another punch to the gut is that it is very easy to track who is benefiting from your pain. Spyware partners are typically paid on a, 'per installation' basis. This means that there is a unique ID associated with each installation so that the partner can get paid. This information is easily acquired, yet no one is doing anything about it.

To further entertain us, Spyware companies are very shrewd and typically add verbiage on their sites to make you believe that all their software is installed only with your consent. What's even more hilarious is how the worst offenders have anti-spyware animations running on their sites.

If you look closely you would almost believe that you are reading a legitimate EULA when in fact, you're reading deceptive or flat out inaccurate information. Many of them tell you that the apps can be easily uninstalled using the add/remove programs feature in Windows. In my experience, this does not work. In fact, there have been times when I have seen what appears to be a complete uninstall only to find that the Spyware is still operating in the background.

Page 2: Giving Spyware the Boot

Continued from Page 1.

My anti-virus suite will surely help me, won't it?

No. If you look at this from the standpoint of AV providers, there is no financial benefit, thus, there is no motivation to add spyware removal features.

Many of the best removal tools are freely available for download. It does not make sense to attempt to develop something better than people already expect for free. Additionally, it is much harder to keep up with spyware than worms, viruses and Trojans because most of the aforementioned were not designed for financial gain and were typically developed by loose bands of unfunded hacking groups to prove a point.

When compared to the financial forces that are backing spyware, the cost to AV companies to keep up would be astronomical. Without a significant increase in product costs, AV companies cannot allocate resources to battle what has become the new front on the assault of your Internet experience.

I have a personal firewall and I patch my system all the time. Shouldn't I be safe?

Absolutely not. For openers, Microsoft is slow to deliver patches in relation to the speed and efficiency that malware developers disseminate their apps. Statistics show that browsing a single site can yield over a dozen infections.

What's worse is that Browser Helper Objects (BHOs) are invisible to personal firewalls. The traffic is seen as originating from your browser, not the malicious helper. Spyware developers know precisely how personal firewalls behave and their apps are written to take advantage of allowed protocols and applications. Adding insult to injury, spyware uses Microsoft's own zone security model against them by simply placing malicious sites in Internet Explorer's trusted zone.

OK so which spyware removal tool is the best?

There is no single tool out there that can rid you of your troubles. Typically, running two or three different scanners will yield different results. A popular tag team approach to vanquishing the unwelcome code includes installing both Lavasoft's Adaware and Spybot Search and Destroy.

Also, detecting spyware is completely different from removing it.

As of late, spyware makers have started delivering apps that cannot be removed with automated tools so even if you ditch IE in favor of an alternate browser you may still find yourself spending hours trying to remediate infections. Sadly, users end up lost in search engine results and scanning forums hoping to find a remediation process that worked for other poor souls.

In some cases, a complete OS reinstall is quicker than bearing this pain. You may also find yourself victimized by your own desire to remove spyware. Some crooked coders have actually developed what look to be legitimate spyware scanners, which are, in fact, spyware propagators.

What can we do?

Sadly, the funding that's fueling spyware development is far greater than the funding devoted to stopping it. Until the playing field evens out, spyware is going to continue to invade our privacy, steal information and cause financial and personal loss.

For now, the best thing you can do is visit trusted sites and be vigilant about scanning your machine with a variety of anti-spyware tools. Keep in mind that most bona fide removal tools are developed by independent groups of developers and small development firms. Paying for anti-spyware software is not an indicator that you are getting a superior product over free, open source alternatives.

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