Is Your Computer Spying on You?

Spyware. Just the name alone sends my mind reeling, conjuring up images of Spiderman, Batman and Clark Kent-looking, trench-coat-wearing men whose heads are bent slightly forward with eyes shifting back and forth as they talk into their wristwatches.

What IS spyware, and why am I in need of a Super Hero?

Spyware programs, otherwise known as "adware," are programs that monitor what you are checking out when you're online. They are HIDDEN software programs that, once on your computer, constantly retrieve the 4-1-1 and gather data about your online activities without your knowledge or approval. Scary, huh?

Another version of Spyware is known as "scumware." While spyware is virtually undetectable by even the Internet savvy, scumware makes itself known. If you type in one Web address and are directed to another, Ladies and Gentlemen may I introduce "Scumware!"

The information gathered about what you do when online is provided to people and companies who might be interestedsuch as "advertisers." Hence the nickname "adware." Examples of information that can be gathered include: passwords, Web sites you've visited, any information saved on your computer actually, just about anything. I want to point out that once this information has been gathered, it can be sold over and over again. It is anybody's guess where or in whose hands or in what corner of the earth this information will end up.

And, yes, my friends, it is legal. The good news is that an anti-spyware law was proposed back in February 2004, so the politicos are paying attention. Though currently legal, Spyware is definitely counted among the black sheep of the Internet family and not regarded too highly by Web advertisers with a conscience.

What I personally find the most frightening aspect of this is that enough information on me could easily be built up so that my identity could be stolen. And, according to Webroot.com, "Spyware infects 9 out of 10 PCs connected to the Internet, and has eclipsed viruses as the #1 threat to online privacy." That got my attention.

So, how does your computer get infected?

Frighteningly enough, your computer is infected when you surf the Web. Cookies (small pieces of information inserted onto your computer), MP3 filesharing, free software downloads and even the friendly toolbars you download from Google or Yahoo! can allow others to track and retain what you are visiting online and then log and dissect every keystroke you make on your computer's keyboard.

While you need to read the fine print when downloading from Google or Yahoo! (to find out what information of yours they will and will not track and then sell), cookies and MP3 filesharing will drop programs onto your computer that will run in the background. You'll never know that they're there taking in every site and every keystroke so that they can turn around and sell your personal data.

Finding the cure
How do you conjure up a Super Hero for your computer?

While you wouldn't dare connect to the Internet without an anti-virus software program, you shouldn't connect to the Internet without your anti-spyware program, either. Think of the anti-spyware program as a virtual shredder for your computer.

On my computer, I run a program by Webroot called Spy Sweeper (for Windows). There are other programs out there, as well: Spyware Eliminator, AntiSpy, Ad-Aware and so on. (For more programs, type "anti-spyware programs" into your favorite search engine.)
The first time I ran Spy Sweeper on my computer, I ran the free download. It inspected 37,122 files/folders on my computer and uncovered 99 hidden spyware programs! Yes, I was concerned concerned enough to sign up.

For those of you techno-phobes, the program is extremely easy and the news gets even better! You can run the free trial program before you pay the $29.95/year to sign up. The first time I ran the program, it only took 10 minutes and 15 seconds (it told me that at the end of the session).

So, pick up your Kitchen & Bath Design News magazine and walk over to your computer. I promise you, this is something you don't want to put off.

Step by Step
If you want to try the free trial on Webroot (and you use Windows), go to www.Webroot.com. All you have to do is click once on "Spy Sweeper." That will take you to a whole page of information detailing what Spy Sweeper is and just exactly what it does to fight spyware.

Once you read that information, at the bottom of the page, you have the option of signing up or trying the program for free. As I mentioned, the first time I ran the program, I tried it for free.

Click on "try it for free." Next, open the program. Once you accept the service agreement and the program's page pops up on your computer, you'll have to go to the left side of the pop-up and click on "sweep now." This is the one thing I didn't like about the program: If you've never used it before, at this point it's not quite clear what to do next.

Once you've clicked on "sweep now," it will guide you through several very simple steps. Note that you will have to close anything open on your computer, other than the Spy Sweeper, in order to get started.

Once the results are returned to you, don't forget to hit "Quarantine." This will ensure that the bad spyware is deleted and removed from your computer.

I make a point of writing "bad" spyware because, believe it or not, there is GOOD spyware. You install good spyware on your computer to keep your kids from surfing to places on the Internet where they are just too young to be, and good spyware helps us monitor our homes when we are away.

While I may not have a wristwatch I can talk into, I do think of my anti-spyware program as my computer's own super hero out to protect it from dastardly deeds of the Jokers, and even Big Brother.

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