Pest Infestation Spreads

Fast becoming a scourge on par with the ever present virus threat, pests and spyware programs are all too often present on computers today, causing everything from security breaches via stolen passwords, to slowdowns and errors running software. Data from anti-pest software vendors show thousands of new pests now appear every year.

A pest is subtly different from a virus. The main distinction is that a pest is not self-replicating...that is, typically it must be installed, usually unknowingly. As such, antivirus programs have been slow to include pest-detection features.

Types of Pests

Pest programs come in one of several forms: spyware, adware, usage trackers, dialers, for example.

Spyware is typically defined as software which uses an Internet connection for silent communication with a server, for purposes of tracking a user's behavior. This can be for anything from password and account number collection, to hardware and software information, to browsing habits.

Browser Helper Objects are loaded as an "assistant" into one's web browser, typically Internet Explorer. This type of pest can monitor browsing activity, replace banner ads with their own, and even adjust referral links to other web pages, for purposes of capturing commissions away from a legitimate affiliate site. Often this type of pest causes other errors in Windows, since Internet Explorer is heavily tied in to the Explorer shell, the foundation of Windows.

Hijackers are often used to reset a user's home page, search page, and Internet bookmarks to point to their sites, typically loaded with ads. Many watch continually, preventing the user from correcting their settings. And finally there is...

Pop Pop Pop Pop

Almost everyone dislikes popup ads. They get in the way to the point that recent studies have indicated the browsing public actually can develop a negative response towards the advertised product or service. So why are they still in use? For the same reason spam e-mail is so prevalent.

Simply put, if even 0.01% of viewers actually make a purchase, that is 100 sales per 1 million ads. Now, ad space on the major search engines is not that cheap so how do some advertisers manage it? By sneaking in.

Adware pests can watch what a user searches for, then display ads relevant to the keywords used. Others just pop up ads at random intervals. Some forms of this are actually somewhat legitimate, used as "payment" for free or trial versions of a program. Other manifestations are unexpected and unwanted. Some varieties send users' search terms or habits to a central server for tracking.

Because the ads are generated locally, even users with popup-blocking web browsers like Netscape 7 and Mozilla's Firefox are not immune.

How Pests Arrive

Often pests are installed as part of a "free" program downloaded from the Internet. Buried in the text of the license agreement during installation is a clause allowing the software's author to collect information and perhaps display ads on your screen. Common sources include Internet "search bars" and useful-sounding utilities.

Many pests first appear in the form of ads disguised to look like legitimate error messages. Typically the user is prompted to install a fix for the error message. In addition to causing confusion for the user, some pests install themselves even after the user selects "No." Other pests can actually install themselves, without the user's knowledge, especially on PCs with older versions of Internet Explorer. Some pests offer an uninstall program...except that it doesn't actually uninstall the pest. Many will reinstall themselves when the system is next booted.

The Cookie Myth

Cookies have received a bad rap by the public, sometimes eclipsing more immediate threats such as e-mail attachments. In reality cookies can be quite useful. A cookie is a small bit of information used by some web sites. A browser stores the cookie locally, to help a web site track information such as logins and account data. Some anti-pest programs flag all cookies, but in general cookies are not a serious threat.

How To Clean Out Pests

As the number of pests has grown significantly over the past two years, so have utilities to eradicate them. Norton AntiVirus 2004 is perhaps the first mainstream antivirus program to include pest detection and removal. Other solutions include Pest Patrol and Ad-Aware, the latter being free for personal (noncommercial) use (Pest Patrol has a free version that detects but does not remove pests). One free program that has been rated highly is Spybot Search & Destroy. The process of using Spybot is similar to the other utilities: a user scans their system, the program generates a list of suspicious programs found, and the user can opt to remove or leave each one. Clicking on an item provides details of the alleged threat. All these utilities can be found by clicking the "Internet Software" link on ITS StartCenter ( Just like antivirus software, it is critical to update anti-pest software to stay protected against new threats.

Download free anti-pest software

April 2004

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