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A few words from Armand

SpyGames
It's a difficult position to be in. They are damned if they do and damned if they don't. The tech support people at our country's largest computer-related companies (ex. Dell, AOL, Microsoft, etc.) are receiving more and more phone calls from customers whose computer and/or Internet connection has slowed to a crawl, gets frequent disconnections or the computer just begins re-booting all by itself!

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When people call tech support with these symptoms, lately, more and more, the tech support personnel are narrowing down the problem to one thing.....spyware.

    Spyware is software that has been installed on a user's computer, most times without the knowledge of the user, and is usually piggybacked along with a utility or program that the user did, in fact, download and/or install. Music sharing and video sharing programs are notorious for having spyware attached. (Can you say KaZaa?)



Spyware threats come in different flavors. The spyware can be:

1. malware (modifies system settings, and can perform undesirable tasks on your system.),
2. hijacker (redirects your web browser to different web sites, ex. on-line casino, porn sites, etc.),
3. dialer (dials a service using your modem, most likely porn sites, for which you are billed!),
4. trojan horse (is attached to a program, and performs undesirable tasks on your system at a future time.),
4. collectware (collects information about you and your surfing habits and sends this info to someone else.)

     All of these spyware "applications" use your computer's resources and, if you have more than one running at the same time (some computers have hundreds of spyware exploits installed), this causes your computer to use most of its operating power to run the spyware and it leaves very little RAM and CPU power left to do the things you actually want your computer to do!

     At this point, users correctly conclude that "something is wrong with my computer and/or my Internet connection" but, more often than not, they incorrectly conclude that Dell, AOL, Microsoft, or some other company should help them fix it...for free.

     All this tech support costs big money, up to $45.00 per support call!  Multiply that by the thousands of calls they receive every day from around the world, and you get a little idea of their annual costs for tech support.

The tech support personnel are not supposed to spend a lot of time with customers who have a problem that:

1.  the customer caused themselves.

2.  has nothing to do with a poorly made product.

    

 

 

 

Tech support usually tries to instruct you on how to deal with the infected computer (in the name of company good-will) but they simply cannot afford to take all the time required to hold your hand while you attempt to rid your computer of these nasties.  It simply costs them too much.



So what should you do?

Keep in mind that the only way to make your computer completely secure is to turn it off and unplug your connection to the Internet.  The trick is to make your computer relatively secure while you are on-line.  Being connected to the Internet without protection is the same as leaving your car running, with the doors unlocked, keys in it and walk away.  Most times, nothing bad will happen but you are just asking for someone to steal it.

Locking your car doors, taking the keys with you and installing a security system generally make it more difficult (but not impossible) for a thief to steal your car.  Adding security to your computer does the same thing.


First - clean your computer of spyware.   If you have not yet dealt with the spyware issue on your computer, run, don't walk over to this website: http://www.safer-networking.org/en/download/   and download "Spybot - Search and Destroy"
This is a free program. (Even though the developer of the program does request a donation on the download page, it is not necessary.)

Install and use this program to scan your computer for spyware exploits. If you've never used a program like this before, you will probably be surprised at what it finds. This program will then allow you to remove these "exploits" from your computer.

Keeping Spybot-Search and Destroy on your computer and running it at least every month will do wonders for your computer's health and fitness.  Just remember to update it with new definitions (just like anti-virus software) each time before you use it.  Again, all of this is free.

Another popular free spyware detection and removal tool is made by Lavasoft.  They sell different versions of Ad-Aware but also offer a Special Edition for free for non-commercial use (Ad-Aware SE).  You can download a copy at http://www.lavasoftusa.com/

Second - protect yourself from viruses.  If your anti-virus software has expired and you aren't regularly updating it with new virus definitions and scanning your hard drive regularly, you are computing on borrowed time.   It is not a question of whether or not you "might" pick up a virus,
... "it's gonna happen." 

If you don't have an "active" anti-virus program on your computer, go to http://www.pandasoftware.com/activescan/  and do a free on-line virus scan of your computer right now.  Go ahead, I'll wait.  Just remember to come back here when you are finished.  They will tell you if you have an infection but won't help you remove it without you buying their software.

If you don't want to pay for anti-virus software, PC Magazine recommends you use AVG anti-virus software by Grisoft.  Go to www.grisoft.com/  and download their latest version for free.  Personally, I believe in, and use, Norton's Anti-Virus software and am presently using their "Internet Security Suite" but the AVG product is so much better than using nothing at all!

Third - clean your windows.   If you have a PC, you should have the latest updates for the version of Windows you are using.  If you don't, or you are not sure, go over to www.microsoft.com and on the left column, click on "Windows Update."

Take the time to download and install all the critical security patches they recommend.  Some old computer viruses are still being widely spread simply because computer users are not bothering to update their Windows to fix known vulnerabilities.  This is the equivalent of Microsoft offering free locks but these computer users are still leaving their windows open!

     If you have Windows XP,  be sure you have updated and are running Service Pack 2 (SP2).

   Included in SP2 is a Windows firewall.  It is not the most powerful firewall but it is certainly better than having no firewall at all.

What is a Firewall?

The Internet, like any other society, is plagued with the kind of jerks who enjoy the electronic equivalent of writing on other people's walls with spray paint, tearing down their mailboxes, or just sitting in the street and blowing their car horns. Some people try to get real work done over the Internet, look up information, pay bills, make reservations, communicate via e-mail, etc. and others have sensitive data they must protect. Usually, a firewall's purpose is to keep the jerks' hands out of your computer while still letting you get information on-line.

   A better alternative to the Windows Firewall is ZoneLab's free ZoneAlarm firewall.  This company has many products for sale on their website but if you look hard enough you can find their free version. 

     To download this program, simply go to www.zonelabs.com .  In the left column, click on "Download and Buy."  On the next page, in the column on the right side of the page, click on the single word "ZoneAlarm." (not "Security Suite", or "Pro" or "with AntiVirus" unless you would like to purchase these products).   On the next page, in the center column, click on the red "Free Download" button.

Notes about ZoneAlarm:

1. Be sure to read the tutorial so you understand how it works

2. Be sure to turn off Windows firewall if you are using the ZoneAlarm firewall.  Using both at the same time could prevent you from getting on-line at all!

3. ZoneAlarm needs to be trained.  The first time you use it, you will  be asked if you want your browser to access the Internet.  When you click on the "yes" button, be sure to check the box that says "remember this answer for the next time."  If you don't, ZoneAlarm will ask your permission each time you try to go online with your browser.

    With these three weapons in your arsenal (anti-spyware, anti-virus and firewalls),  you will be better equipped to face the perils of "surfing" in shark infested waters.

Final thoughts:

"Researchers have discovered that chocolate produces some of the same reactions in the brain as marijuana.  The researchers also discovered other similarities between the two but can't remember what they are."   -- Matt Lauer on NBC's Today Show .

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