Annoyances of the Computer World ArticleFormer staff writer - September 13, 2004
Category: OCC News
I wanted to take a moment before the introduction and give partial credit for this article to forum member Kamikaze Badger. While this article has been in the works since before I took time off to get married, it wasn't until he posted a message about Adware/Spyware removal (topic) in our forums that I picked back up to work on this article. Granted, he wasn't the first (nor will he be the last) to discuss these topics. Nonetheless, thank you Kamikaze Badger. Your post was both inspiring, and the swift kick that I needed to get this article finished. ;)
This article is intended to be a more in depth look at spyware and other annoyances of the computer world, however Kamikaze Badger's message is a good stop for anyone looking for some basic information that contains feedback from OCC members. I'd also like to encourage OCC members and guest to stop by his thread and contribute to it.
Computers are practically an essential part of everyday life for a majority of the world. We use them at work, at school, at home, and even when on the road. Computers can bring a lot of useful information to you at the press of a button. However, computers can also bring a lot of useful information about you to corporations or even those with malicious intents.
While a majority of our visitors are familiar with the terms like spyware, adware, and virus, there are still a large number of computer users who have never heard those terms, or have no idea how to protect themselves.
In this article, we hope to inform and educate the less knowledgeable about the darker side of technology, and provide some resources on how to keep your computer safe. At this point, we won't be reviewing the various antivirus or adware-removal utilities; however that may come sometime down the road.
Virus & Worm Information
This is probably the term that most people are familiar with, so will start here.
So, what is a virus? In medical terms, a virus is any of various simple submicroscopic parasites that often cause disease. Beyond that, Virus has also been the name of a number of bad movies.
OK… the definition of virus that we are talking about (Computer Virus) is a program (or code) that or infects (or imbeds into) an operating system or application. Depending on the intent of the virus, it can do multiple things. Such as send out spam emails, allow others access to your system and data, erase information, corrupt files, or display text messages, amung other things.
The term virus has a negative meaning; however there are antivirus-viruses out and about that while still makes use of an exploit in code or software try and remove or disable harmful viruses. Whether it's a virus or antivirus-virus you still don't want it on your system.
Thankfully, a virus cannot be spread without the involvement of a person. That's right, if you spread a virus to someone else, it's no one else's fault but your own.
However there are virus-like worms out there. Worms are really nothing more than a sophisticated virus that have the ability to propagate itself on a network (be in a local or wide are network). Most of the time when you hear about a virus in the news, it's actually a worm.
How can you protect yourself against viruses and worms? It's actually very simple:
- Be aware
- Keep your Operating System and applications updated/patched
- Don't open email attachment from an unknown sender
- Don't open a file if you don't know the person you got it from
- Use an antivirus program
- Keep the antivirus program updated
- Use a Firewall
- Keep the firewall updated
The first step is to be aware. Most people would argue that antivirus software is the key. Hate to break it to you, but its not. Fact is, by simply being aware of what you are doing/opening and keeping the system and apps up to date, you can prevent viruses.
The next thing, and probably the hardest thing to do is to keep you operating system and other applications (specifically your web browser and email client) up to date. It doesn't matter if you use Windows or Linux, keeping the OS and the apps that you use up to date is essential.
Updates and patches for the Operating Systems appear almost daily at times (especially for Windows users). These updates usually contain any number of bug fixes and security fixes. While I'm not a fan of the Windows Automatic Update, I do suggest that you run Windows Update at least two times a week.
The next two items really tie back the first step, “Be Aware”, but I wanted to list them separately.
Opening an email attachment from someone you don't know is a sure way to get (and send) a virus. Actually, some of the more cleaver viruses didn't even need to be sent in an attachment, they could be embedded into the email itself.
Another preventive measure to prevent from email viruses is to disable the preview pane (Outlook and Outlook Express users specifically). By using the preview pane, you might as well be opening the email anyway.
One other way to help against email viruses is to disable HTML in emails. Most people I know don't like color, images, or background in the email, so is there any other reason to use HTML in the email?
Warez and specifically peer-2-peer (P2P) networks are another major source of viruses. Staying off the P2P networks will not only reduce the risk of getting a virus, it'll also reduce the threat of a lawsuit with the RIAA. ;) OCC doesn't condone the distribution or promotion of warez, however if you are going to do download illegal software (warez, appz, music, etc.) then get it from a reliable or verified source.
While it isn't the key in virus protection, antivirus software is extremely helpful. It's more of the last line of defense your system has, and should your system become infected by a worm or virus a good antivirus program may be the only thing that keeps you from losing your important files (or more important same game data).
If you are going to use an antivirus program, it's important to keep it updated, otherwise it's a useless waist of system resources. Again, this step ties back to keeping your OS and other apps updated.
Firewall probably should have been listed above (or with) “use an antivirus program.” While a firewall won't remove viruses, it can stop them from being sent to you or, if used right, being sent out from you. I prefer Norton Internet Security for my Windows systems, simply because I can configure it to block anything and everything from accessing the internet until I give it specific permission. There are other firewalls that can accomplish this same thing, I just prefer Norton.
And again, we're back to keep it updated. Hopefully you now get the idea to keep things updated. If you don't keep your apps updated, you might as well not even try to prevent viruses.
Now that we've discussed Viruses and Worms, as well as how to protect against them, we'll move on to some virus-like software, Spyware and Adware.
What is Spyware? Before giving the actual definition, we'll dissect the word so you have a better understanding of it.
The word spy is probably something everyone has heard. There are several definitions of the word spy, the best ones are these:
- One employed by a company to obtain confidential information about its competitors.
- One who secretly keeps watch on another or others.
- To observe secretly with hostile intent.
- To seek or observe something secretly and closely.
The suffix “–ware” has one real definition that applies:
- Commonly used to form terms for classes of software. Examples: careware, crippleware, crudware, freeware, fritterware, guiltware, liveware, meatware, payware, psychedelicware, shareware, shelfware, vaporware, wetware.
Put the definitions of the two together, and we get the definition of Spyware; Software that observes and obtains confidential information, sometimes with hostile intent.
What kind of information? Well, it could be something as simple as your IP Address or the web sites you visit, or it could be as malicious as passwords and credit card numbers. Either way, it's unwanted and can cause performance degeration on your computer as well as eat up bandwidth.
I classify spyware as a virus, or a Trojan horse because of the havoc it can wreck. While a majority of the spyware “programs” do nothing more than monitor and report on your surfing habits, there are some forms of spyware that change your browser's home page or search page (mainly a problem with Internet Explorer), alter your host file to send all traffic to a specific site, read cookies, and numerous other things.
Most spyware is installed along side other programs, and in some case you might actually see a warning about the spyware in the End User License Agreement of a program.
The most common method for spyware to be installed is along side IE toolbars, browser plug-ins, or system utilities (including some spyware removal programs).
How do you prevent against spyware? Well, the first thing you can do is not use IE. Most spyware is currently targeted against IE, so simply switching browsers will help. Though it's anticipated that as Opera and FireFox/Mozilla gain popularity more spyware companies will target those browsers specifically. Thankfully, the development teams at Opera Software and the Mozilla foundation are more committed to fighting Spyware.
There are a number of ant-spyware programs out there, however most of which are passive scanners. This means that they will only detect installed spyware when you have the program run a scan, much like running an antivirus scan.
There are also a few active scanners, which run in the background and try and prevent spyware from being installed in the first place.
As with antivirus programs, it is essential to keep your spyware scanners up to date. Most people will actually tell you that the best way to prevent spyware is to use multiple scanners. I've yet to find one scanner that will catch everything.
Adware is much like Spyware, but in some case much more annoying. Where spyware transmits data back to companies, Adware mainly causes pop up advertisements to be displayed. In addition, programs that contain advertisement banners in them are also said to contain adware, examples of this would include Opera Web Browser, AOL Instant Messenger, and ICQ.
Some free programs that contain Adware may be purchased to remove the adware, the Opera Web Browser is a prime example. Many of the other adware programs, such as the ones that cause pop-up ads may be removed by running spyware scanners.
The other pink meat, and comes in a variety of flavors.... and of course, that's not what we're talking about here.
The spam we're talking about also comes in a variety of flavors. IM Spam (aka SPIM), mobil phone spam, fax spam, and the most popular email spam... I've also heard people talk about telemarketers as “spammers.”
Spam is really nothing more than the sending of bulk messages to people without their permission. And by bulk, we're not meaning sending messages to a dozen people, usually it's sent to hundreds to even millions of people. Again, the key is that the messages are without the permission of the recipient(s).
So what makes spam so bad? First and foremost, it's rather annoying. Deleting one or two messages a day isn't that bad, but I've seen people (usually on Hotmail or Yahoo mail) who get 10+ spam messages a day.
So it's annoying, that can't be the only reason it's bad, right? Right. In addition to just being annoying, spam messages can spread viruses, contain fraudulent messages and even scams, or contain inappropriate material for the recipient.
How does your email get to the spammer? Well, once upon a time your email address might have been sold to a marketing group from your bank, credit card company, ISP, phone company, or any other place you freely gave the information to. Thankfully, that process has almost ceased, however there are still cases of individual employees stealing and selling email addresses.
While most “reputable” companies no longer sell or share information without your permission, other places like porn web sites, and most fly-by-night businesses will sell your information before you've ever hit the enter key. One site that I receive a majority of spam from was actually a place I went to get information regarding the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certification. Got the information I wanted, but a lot of email I didn't. :/
Just a note, OCC does not and will not sell our members information or share it with anyone. We are committed to your privacy, and any information you provide to us for overclockersclub.com, overclockermail.com, or the for the OCC LAN Party is treated as confidential.
Another popular method for spammers is just the guessing game. Send an email to 10,000,000 randomly generated emails. Cover a large area and you're bound to get a few real email addresses.
Probably the fastest growing method for spamming is due to viruses, worms, and spyware. Yes, because of spyware, your email address, or the email address of people you talk with could end up in the hands of a spammer. On the other hand, viruses and worms can use your own email address to send spam (which usually contains the virus that infected you) out to anyone in your contact list.
While there are many more ways for your email to end up in the hands of spammers, there is one more method that is quite common, and prays upon unsuspecting people. Many spam messages may contain an opt-out link toward the end that says something to the effect of “click here to remove your email from our mailing list.” While it sounds perfectly safe, this may actually be confirming the existence of your account and setting you up to receive ten times more spam. If it isn't a newsletter you signed up for, or you don't remember signing up for it, DON'T CLICK THE LINK. Just delete the email and move on.
Also, as stated in the virus protection section, if you don't recognize who an email is from, don't open it.
So, other than not clicking the remove link from suspicious emails, how can you prevent spam? Well, the first tip is to protect your email. You don't go giving out your SSN or phone number to anyone do you? Why would you do so with your email? While it isn't as confidential as a SSN, treating it as it was is a sure way to protect yourself.
Set up filters in your email client. Many email clients contain pre-built filters that will filter potential spam from your inbox and sort it some place else. These filters usually can be updated or edited by the user allowing for new spammers to be blocked. If your email client doesn't have filters, set up your own, or change clients.
There are also a number of third-party programs that will integrate with many email clients and help filter spam. This includes firewalls, antiviruses, or stand-alone applications. Some applications will even help filter IM spam.
Pop-up & Pop-in Advertisement Information
Pop-up Ad's or simply pop-ups are probably the one thing that annoys people the most about surfing the web. They are traditionally used to push advertisements in your face, but can also have malicious intent, such as infecting you with spyware, or even a virus (if you are gullible enough).
Oddly enough pop-ups tend to turn people away from products more than it encourages people to buy the advertised item. X-10 would be a prime example of this. Though of you who have been around the net for a while know exactly what I'm talking about.
Unfortunately, there isn't a sure fire way to stop all pop-ups. There are many third party applications out there that will help stop pop-ups in Internet Explorer, Netscape, and other browsers. Most of these applications will come with a pre-built list and allow you to “train” the software to kill future pop-ups. More powerful web browsers such as FireFox, Mozilla, and Opera include built in pop-up stoppers, but they don't always catch everything.
As the pop-up blockers have begun to become more sophisticated and useful, advertisement companies have had to come up with additional ways of pushing advertisements on you.
Pop-ups are now becoming what I call “pop-ins” that use Macromedia Flash, ActiveX, or even Java plug-ins to display an advertisement inside the page you are viewing, usually taking up the entire area of the web page for a few seconds. Weather.com is a good example of this, but thankfully, the ads don't come up every time you visit (other sites do).
Currently the only real way to stop pop-in advertisements is to disable ActiveX and/or Flash. However these plug-ins are usually required for a large number of sites, and the advertisement companies know that.
Third party applications are making their way out to the public that will help fight pop-ins, but I've yet to find one that is decent.
I saved this definition for last. Malware is short for malicious software, and is a generic term that can be used to reference viruses, worms, and even spyware. Some people have even called spam malware, however spam isn't software.
Malware is more of a generic term. To defend against Malware is no different than protecting from viruses and spyware.
Well, hopefully you are now a bit more informed about the darker side of computers. Giving you the information about viruses, spam, and spyware is only part of the key. Throughout this article, I've mentioned using various applications such as firewalls, antivirus software, spyware removal tools, and spam blockers. Next you will find a list of many of the most popular utilities. Which program to use will actually depend on your personal needs and preferences. If you have any questions about any of the software, feel free to ask in the OCC forums or IRC channel, chances are you will find someone who has used the software.
The applications listed in this article are unaffiliated with OverclockersClub.com and listed in no particular order. We are providing the links to the applications for you as a resource, but cannot guarantee the effectiveness or reliability. Always read the user agreement, and get feedback on any of the applications before using them.
Also, this is not a complete list of all software available for theses functions, feel free to search for additional software that may be more to your liking.
Well, that's it for this article. I hope you've found it somewhat useful and informative. By being smarter about your computer you can actually help prevent spam and the spread of viruses, as well as keep your personal data safe. As always, if you have any questions about any of the software mentioned in the article (or even that unmentioned) feel free to ask in our forums or IRC channel.
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