New scourges: spam, spyware and pop-ups

A few years ago, an antivirus program was plenty of protection for the average PC user. Then firewalls had to be erected against hackers. Soon privacy controls became standard to limit online losses of personal information.

Now anti-spam, anti-spyware and pop-up blocker programs are the forerunners of a whole new generation of security software. Experts estimate that spam accounts for 70 percent or more of total e-mail volume, and spy programs have spiked in frequency because of the increasing popularity of shareware. The term malware applies to all these malicious entities.

In a few months' time, the count of new protective programs has grown to amazing proportions. I tried to select a mix of the main players for this review, but they merely scratch the surface of what's available.

My goal was to try out the various programs as an average, busy user would employ them. I tested with five notebook PCs, ranging from a 3-year-old Toshiba Tecra running Windows 2000 to a top-of-the-line Gateway with Windows XP. I rotated the various programs among the notebooks and surfed over the course of several weeks.

For the spam products, I created a dummy Post Office Protocol Version 3 e-mail account and signed in with that address to everything I could find on the Internet. All the machines had that address as their default.

As I surfed, I was surprised and pleased to find that all the programs ran well and were relatively easy to install. None caused any major conflicts. Accordingly, I based their grades on functionality and usability.

Critics of Microsoft Corp. often overlook the fact that its ubiquitous operating systems have integrated security features. Some of these features work well, but they tend to be invisible. So, to more accurately judge the effects of the programs being tested, I turned down or off as many security features as possible in Internet Explorer and the Windows OSes.

Microsoft is working on a number of additional security features such as SmartScreen filtering for spam in forthcoming versions of its software.

Network Associates Inc.'s McAfee line of sofware is one of the giants in the security and privacy industry. I tested SpamKiller 5.0 and AntiSpyware 1.0 and liked their looks and ease of use from the start.

Either McAfee has great designers or it has paid lots of attention to customer feedback. The Mc-
Afee Security Center, which ties together the various security programs, is much improved over an earlier version I tested several years ago.

I did find it strange, however, that AntiSpyware was standalone'not integrated into the Security Center for easier control of malware threats from one spot.

The best thing about AntiSpyware 1.0 is an auto-protect feature that, unlike most other spyware filters, continually monitors Internet usage for potentially hostile applications. That's how real-time virus protection programs work, too.

Lavasoft's Ad-aware 6.0 Plus and Pro are the only other programs in this review with real-time spyware protection, which frees users from manual scans. I do recommend running periodic, complete manual scans just in case, however. For busy users, the real-time scan feature alone is worth the $40 price tag.

McAfee AntiSpyware did a good job of catching most of, but not all, the spyware that invaded my test systems, and that was true across the board. None of the anti-spyware programs was 100 percent effective at eliminating all parasites.

As with antivirus software, the degree of cleansing was the chief factor. But it didn't lend itself to quantification because the frequency of spyware attacks varies greatly from day to day and week to week.

Over time, the vendors' promptness at keeping their spyware and other definitions current will become the determining factor, and only history can judge how good a job they've done.

I usually have more confidence in older, more established companies with proven track records, but that's not to say smaller companies haven't sometimes spotted new sources of infestation faster than the big boys.

McAfee SpamKiller 5.0 didn't work quite as well as AntiSpyware. SpamKiller caught only a small portion of the junk that poured into my mailbox. Again, as with spyware filtering, this is a subjective area, dependent on the types of spam received and the user's own definition of spam.

McAfee, like some of the other vendors, claims that its filter learns from user input and will improve with time. But it seems to me that all the anti-spam programs could have come better-trained out of the box.

The big problem I encountered was a good percentage of false positives. SpamKiller would block legitimate e-mail instead of spam. Ironically, the first message it blocked was my receipt for downloading it.

I then informed SpamKiller that its receipt was a valid e-mail, but I could not get it back into my inbox.

SpamKiller did have one terrific capability: reporting spammers to the proper authorities, sort of like hanging up on a telemarketer. It always feels better when you can do something personally about annoyances.

There was no pop-up blocker, however. This shortcoming was magnified by the fact that the McAfee site itself has numerous annoying pop-ups.

Symantec Inc.'s Norton line is another titan of the security-privacy industry. I tested Norton Internet Security 2004, which I used often when I worked for the U.S. Senate.

I've always found Norton products adequate for the job but not spectacular. I'm sticking with that opinion in this review. Internet Security includes Norton AntiSpam, AntiVirus, which has been upgraded with spyware filters, and Ad Blocker.

Like McAfee AntiSpyware, Norton Antivirus found some but not all of the spyware on my ma-
chines, but it had a harder time removing some of the unwanted programs. I ended up having to uninstall Norton and reinstall McAfee to get rid of a particularly pesky item.

I liked the fact that the anti-spyware was integrated with the antivirus program. That seems logical and eliminates the need for double scanning.

AntiSpam did a better job at its task, but again, it was not perfect. The best thing about it was its integration with Microsoft Outlook.

Norton's Ad Blocker disappointed me. Even after I dragged pop-ups into its trash can to teach it what to filter, it still allowed the same ads to invade my system again.

A bigger flaw, however, was that Norton slowed down my computers, and I'm not sure why. I experienced a notable lag in both surfing speed and system performance on all the test computers.

Symantec has announced it will acquire Brightmail Inc. of San Francisco, a front-runner in the enterprise anti-spam market. I hope the acquisition will lead to better spam filtering across all platforms.

Trend Micro Inc.'s PC-cillin has been getting a lot of attention as a hot, all-in-one security package incorporating antivirus, firewall, spam filtering and spyware detection.

Trend Micro sent me its Internet Security 2004 suite, and as a whole it performed well. The components standing alone were not perfect, but as a group their value and comprehensiveness deserve accolades.

The spam filter did a better job than any of the other programs I reviewed. I did get a number of false positives, however, as with the other anti-spam programs.

I found it somewhat strange that PC-cillin only tagged spam in the inbox instead of putting the offensive e-mail into another folder as the other programs did.

PC-cillin's interface was a little weaker than the others' and not as intuitive as McAfee's. There was no screen to monitor the status of all the protection at once.

The anti-spyware filter was weak and didn't come close to detecting as much malware as Ad-aware. And there was no integrated pop-up blocker.

Panda Software Inc.'s Platinum 7.0 was the least satisfactory of the group, possibly because I had high expectations of the cute panda head icon.

The anti-spam component didn't seem to work at all. Even after training it, I found large amounts of spam in my mailbox. The program also blocked a good number of legitimate messages.

My result was confirmed by a colleague who continued to receive multitudes of unsolicited e-mails even after training the program for several weeks.

The spyware filter did not perform much better. Subsequent scans using Ad-aware after first scanning with Panda showed multiple missed malware installations. No pop-up blocker was included.

Lavasoft Inc.'s Ad-aware 6.0 Plus and Pro had the best spyware filters in the group. Ad-aware was the first popular anti-spyware program available for free. I discovered it a few years ago and have trusted it ever since. In this review, Ad-aware found and destroyed nearly all the malware present on my systems. My favorite was the Ad-watch real-time filter, which intercepts spyware as it attacks.

The free version has only a basic scanning feature; Plus and Pro are the paid versions. Their only real difference is that Pro is geared more for networks.

Although Ad-aware performs only one function instead of multiple ones like the other reviewed programs, it carries out its given task adroitly.

The free Google Toolbar, although it has multiple other functions, does only ad blocking as a security feature. Like Ad-aware, it performs that function exceptionally well. The toolbar managed to filter out almost all the pop-up windows I encountered over two months of testing.

The toolbar, downloadable from www.google.com, attaches itself to Internet Explorer. When a pop-up tries to enter, the pop-up button flashes to let a user know an advertisement has been stopped. If the user wants to see the pop-up, a click on the flashing button will allow it.

Once in a while, when I accessed multiple sites in rapid succession, the blocker was fooled, but this happened very rarely. For the price, this is the best pop-up blocker I have tried.

One common complaint about security vendors is that no one has developed a way to block spam from Web-based e-mail accounts such as Yahoo or Netscape. I have had a Netscape webmail account for many years and don't want to change it, but spam has really become a problem there.

Some of the programs I tested do allow scanning of free Hotmail accounts, but that is only because Microsoft has changed Outlook to support Hotmail. I doubt Microsoft will support Netscape e-mail scanning in the near future.

After trying all these products, I settled on Trend Micro's PC-cillin Internet Security 2004, Lavasoft's Ad-aware 6.0 Plus and the Google Toolbar as my top personal choices.

David Thang D. Luu, a law student at the University of Maryland, previously was systems administrator for Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald (R-Ill.).

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