Internaut: Viruses aren't the same as pests

Shawn P. McCarthy

Most users know they're vulnerable to malicious code and prying eyes on the Internet. But many don't comprehend the full sneakiness of methods used to spy, damage files or harness a PC's processing power without permission.

These pests are hidden bits of code that eventually end up on almost every PC. They can redirect Web links, launch pop-up ads, capture keystrokes, and even turn on microphones and webcams.

They're not always full, executable programs. Some consist of a few lines of code that attach to other programs to change configuration settings. They arrive via free software releases, sneak in by file-sharing or Internet messaging, or install automatically through Java applets and pop-up ads on dubious Web sites.

WebRoot Software Inc. of Boulder, Colo., which sells privacy and protection tools, claims that 90 percent of PCs today harbor at least some spyware. WebRoot's $29.95 Spy Sweeper software scans a system for known pests and suggests ways to remove them.

PestPatrol Inc. of Carlisle, Pa., at www.pestpatrol.com, has good background information about how pests proliferate and ways to fight them. You can download a limited evaluation copy of PestPatrol or buy a license for $39.95.

Of particular value is PestPatrol's long list of known pests. For example, if you use AOL Instant Messenger, look for the section about IM pests that steal passwords, spoof other users, sniff IP addresses and install spyware. See the download section for free tools.

Adware, sometimes called spyware, is another type of pest that monitors the uniform resource locators of sites you visit. Most often the information is used to launch pop-up ads that appear to be coming from the sites you visit. If you use file-swapping programs such as Kazaa, you may have an adware problem.

Lavasoft'the Adelaide, Australia, maker of Ad-aware products'is the most famous foe of this class of pests. Download its Ad-aware scanning and removal tool from www.lavasoftusa.com.
BoDetect, from CBSoftSolutions of Beaverton, Ore., looks specifically for monitoring software, including programs placed by bosses to spy on employees. Learn more at www.cbsoftsolutions.com.

Some troublemakers try to invade your PC through an unused port. Personal firewalls such as ZoneAlarm, from ZoneLabs Inc. of San Francisco, alert you to such connections. The basic version of ZoneAlarm, downloadable free from www.zonelabs.com, can tell who is scanning your system or trying to connect, and it limits your own programs' Internet access to keep them from sharing information. Enhanced ZoneAlarm versions also detect Web bugs and privacy-tracking cookies.

Hard-core privacy proponents might want to check out the $59 TDS-3 Trojan Defence Suite from an Australian vendor, at www.diamondcs.com.au. It not only seeks out Trojans and hacker activity, it also has traceroute and reverse port lookup tools to finger the bad guys.

Shawn P. McCarthy is president of an information services development company. His e-mail address is internaut@diagonalmediagroup.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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