Last week, we went over a couple of free programs designed to help prevent new and experienced computer users alike from getting viruses and spyware. This week, we continue in the same vein, stopping 3 a.m. tech-support phone-calls everywhere with a couple of practical tips.
#3: Install some anti-malware programs
Spyware and adware has become a scourge unto itself in recent years, rivalling even viruses in gross number of productive hours they cause to be lost. For those new to the terminology, adware is software installed on a user's computer, either intentionally or not, that advertises a service or product ad nauseum. Spyware is any piece of software that secretly reports to a company or group about what its user is doing. Collectively, they're called malware, and they mostly harass Windows users.
Most adware is also spyware, though not all spyware is adware.
Regardless, it's poorly coded and enough can cause even a super-fast computer to come to a screeching halt. It's also a royal pain in the ass to get rid of once it infects a computer. There's a theory among computer scientists that
once World War III breaks out and the world is plunged into nuclear armageddon, the only things remaining will be cockroaches, spyware and Keith Richards.
Most techies, when confronted with a computer so bogged down with malware that it takes half an hour just to boot into Windows, will take the easiest route and just reformat the whole damn thing. This obviously sucks for those who value their files or like to have their computer set up in a very particular way. Furthermore, those lacking gracious techie friends often find themselves taking their rig to a computer store and paying $50 for the privilege of losing everything on their hard-drive. Thus, the question of malware isn't so much getting rid of it as avoiding it in the first place.
Spybot: Search and Destroy and Ad-Aware are two programs designed to do exactly that. Think of them as anti-virus for malware. However, while usually only one anti-virus program is needed, malware is such a difficult nuisance that it's advisable to have both of them. Often, one will catch stuff that the other missed. It's also a good idea to turn on the "Immunize" feature of one of them, since that will protect against obvious threats. Scan regularly with them and, combined with open-source software like Firefox and Thunderbird, malware may soon be a thing of the past.
#4: Think like a geek
Contrary to popular opinion, this doesn't involve playing D&D and debating Battlestar Galactica at length. Thinking like a geek merely involves being insanely cynical about everything online. With a few notable exceptions (Most of which have already been mentioned in this column's short existence), nothing online is really "free." Furthermore, the more emphasis a site puts on something being free, the more likely you'll pay for it in the end in some way, whether it be in time removing it from your hard-drive, in sanity from clicking through ads, or in money from tech-support bills. In short, if the site advertises itself with a giant, animated, 3D, image of the word "FREE," run.
Furthermore, don't download something merely on the premise that it could be "cool." Many people thought Bonzi Buddy was awesome immediately after installing it. A week later, these same people had whole rooms covered with violent depictions of purple monkey death. If something seems mind-blowingly incredible and it just must be downloaded, at least run a Google search on it, perhaps with the word "removal" appended to the end. As well, do some research on who's publishing it. Is it a group, an individual, or a company?
Voluntary groups and individuals tend not to need the marketing data provided by spyware. Companies, on the other hand, have a whole different agenda. That said, always be wary. A popular plug-in for MSN Messenger, MSN Plus!, comes bundled with a particularly annoying piece of malware that countless users have installed by carelessly clicking through the installer. Read everything.
Next time in This Week On The Internet, Ændrew will either answer your tech questions or talk about various open-source encryption solutions, depending on whether he gets any questions. Email email@example.com for your technical salvation!