Cyber Snoops: How to keep them out of your computer

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Did you know that your every move on the computer might be monitored? More than 90 percent of computers in the United States have some form of spyware on them, according to a survey released by Dell Computers and the Internet Education Foundation, which advocates a decentralized, global Internet to promote democracy, communications and commerce. People could be spying on your Web surfing, your e-mails and your online purchases, for example. These individuals could be advertising company representatives wishing to spam you with their material, a nosy friend or employer, or someone trying to steal your identity. “[Computer spying] has increasingly been used for advertising pur-poses, to fraudulently extract money from consumers by offering them spyware removal programs and to find out information about consumers that can be used to inflict financial loss,” says Danielle Yates, spokesperson for the nonprofit GetNetWise/Internet Education Foundation.

Hard as it may be to believe, it’s pretty easy for such people to gain access to your computer. “Consumers don’t deserve to be pestered and spied on by people who illegally hijack their computers,” says Lydia Parnes, acting director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a press release. The FTC is backing legislation against computer spying. Such legislation is still being debated in Congress, although the FTC has already filed its first injunction to halt the practices of a small group of companies suspected of using spyware for fraudulent purposes and financial gain. In October, the FTC brought a criminal case under the Consumer Protection Act against the spyware firm Seismic Entertainment, or Smartbot.net, and is seeking an order to essentially shut down the company. As of this writing, no decision had been reached.

What Is Spyware?
Spyware is a computer program placed on your computer without your knowledge. It monitors your computer activities, gathers private information and sends the information back to the people that placed the program(s) on your computer.

How Does Spyware Work?
According to the FTC, the spyware program causes the CD-ROM tray on a targeted computer to open, then sends to the computer user a message that may read as follows: “FINAL WARNING!! If your CD-ROM drive is open. …You DESPERATELY NEED to rid your system of spyware pop-ups IMMEDIATELY! Spyware programmers can control your computer hardware if you failed to protect your computer right at this moment! Download Spy Wiper NOW!” When you innocently download Spy Wiper, you may actually load a spyware program on to you computer, not a program to locate spyware. PCs are more prone than Macs to viruses that may lead to spyware being downloaded.

How Does Spyware Get on Your Computer?
Spyware may be placed on your computer as you surf the Internet and visit Web sites. It may be hidden inside programs that seem to offer free benefits, such as keeping computer clocks set properly or delivering various types of vital information. “Spyware can surreptitiously find its way on to consumers’ computers through e-mail, ‘drive-by’ downloads, unauthorized Web downloads or by being bundled into other software a consumer installs or downloads,” says Yates.

How Can You Protect Your Computer?
There are software programs that can help protect your computer from spyware, adware, malware and scumware. Look for features such as active monitoring and updated database downloads that keep your spyware remover up to date. The FTC warns consumers to avoid Spy Wiper and Spy Deleter, purported anti-spyware products sold for approximately $30. Yates notes that the GetNetWise site (www.getnetwise.org) features a spotlight on spyware, providing tips on how to find, remove and prevent annoying spyware from being downloaded onto your computer. She adds the following tips of her own to keep your computer safe:

• Be skeptical about installing strange or free software.
• Similarly, be skeptical of any security warnings.
• Read the End User Licensing Agreement and the Privacy Policy before installing any software. These tell you about all the features of the program, including those that will track your computer movements. Most people click on the “agree” box and unintentionally download a spyware feature along with the program they actually want.
• Practice basic computer security hygiene by installing anti-virus software and firewalls and keeping software up-to-date with security patches.
• Know the symptoms of spyware and use tools to remove these programs.

Who Can Help?
The GetNetWise site features sections on issues pertaining to consumer safety on the Internet, including kid’s safety, spam (unwanted commercial e-mail), privacy and computer security. Each section contains precautionary tips, recommended tools and suggested actions to combat cyber threats. The sections are supplemented with video tutorials and Real Player movies that discuss what consumers can do to protect themselves from fraudulent Internet scams, such as spyware, and spam.

How to Tell If Your Computer Is Being Monitored?
To determine if your computer is being spied on, Yates suggests looking for:

• Sluggishness. One of the most common symptoms of spyware operating on a PC is apparent in the form of a serious drop in its responsiveness, potentially meaning that spyware is draining its computing power.
• New “favorites.” Spyware will often add “favorites” of its own to the browser’s favorites folder. An unusual number of new and unfamiliar favorites could signal infection.
• Fishy pop-up ads. Pop-up ads from spyware software are designed to look like they have been served up by legitimate Web sites. As a result, they may not be as easily recognized as a symptom of infection. There’s no way to be sure, but if the contents of the ads seem strange—or if pop-up ads  appear when there is no Internet activity—it is very likely that they are being served up by spyware software.
• Change of default home page. One of the oldest spyware tricks is to automatically change the default or start-up home page of Web browsers.

Legal Actions to Take If You Find Out Who Is Spying on You
Submit a consumer complaint form directly to the Federal Trade Commission at https://rn.ftc.gov/pls/dod/wsolcq$.startup?Z_ORG_CODE=PUO1, or to advocacy groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology (www.cdt.org/action/spyware/) and the National Fraud Information Center (www.fraud.org/). For more information about protecting your computer, visit www.ftc.gov/infosecurity.