Learn More about Spyware

Last Updated: 10/19/2012

Aliases

Many different terms are often used interchangeably to refer to spyware-like software. They include:

  • Adware     
  • Spybot
  • Malware     
  • Spyware
  • Scareware     
  • Thiefware
  • Scumware     
  • Tracking software
  • Sneakware     
  • Trackware
  • Snoopware

Who should be concerned with spyware?

If you're online, you should be concerned about spyware (particularly if you are using Microsoft Internet Explorer). Spyware predominantly targets Windows systems but increasingly there are reports of spyware that targets Mac OS and OS X, Safari, Quicktime and even iTunes.

How does spyware get into your computer?

Spyware often arrives attached to other software you intentionally install. Many "freeware" and "shareware" programs you download over the Internet include at least one, but up to several, parasite programs that will silently install themselves on your computer as you install the software that you actually wanted.

Some may also arrive in email messages. Unlike viruses, these pieces of spyware usually announce themselves. Clicking on and opening the attachment then serves to download this software onto your computer.

Spyware can be installed on your system by simply visiting a web site. In this case, the web site might ask you to allow the software. In some malicious cases, the web site will take advantage of flaws in your web browser to install the software with out your permission. If you surf the web, particularly with older versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer, even if you are careful, you can pick up adware and other forms of spyware. Any media-supported web site often attaches a tracking cookie.

And, if you share music, files, or photos with other computer users, your risk also increases. For example, KaZaa often comes with spyware that is installed along with that program.

Your chances for picking up spyware also rise when you install software applications (especially if you don't full read the license agreements - i.e. the "fine print.") Voluntary downloads account for a large portion of the privacy-infringing software. You may not realize a free screensaver or computer game or toolbar also reports back your private information.

What are some of the symptoms of spyware?

If your computer is exhibiting some of the following symptoms, it is very likely that it has become infected with spyware.

  • Unusually slow performance and/or Internet connection
  • You are subjected to endless pop-up advertisements, even when you're not on the web
  • Strange hard drive behavior
  • Your web browser's homepage or settings have changed, seemingly on their own
  • There is a new toolbar in your web browser that is difficult to get rid of
  • New, unexpected icons appear in the task tray at the bottom of your screen
  • Frequent computer crashes
  • You are redirected to web sites other than the one you requested
  • The search engine your browser opens to when you click "search" has been changed
  • Certain keys fail to work in your browser
  • Random Windows error messages begin to appear

How do you remove spyware?

OIT and CERT recommend that you run a full scan on your computer with your antivirus software. Microsoft antivirus software now includes the ability to detect and remove spyware.

How do you prevent spyware?

OIT and industry experts recommend that you:

  • Install and run antivirius software.
  • Be smart about what you surf and download online.
    • Do not click "agree" or "OK" to close a window. Instead, click the red "x" in the corner of the window or press the Alt + F4 buttons on your keyboard to close a window.
    • Be more cautious when downloading free software, especially "free" file-sharing applications, which are often bundled with spyware.
    • Remember, if software looks too good to be true, it probably is. (i.e. a web advertisement tells you you've just won something so click here).  Don't click anything, just close out the window.
    • Do not download or run email attachments unless you know what they are.
    • Only download from Web sites and people you trust.
  • Adjust your Web browser's security settings or use a more secure Web browser. Adjust your browser preferences to limit pop-up windows and cookies: pop-up windows are often generated by some kind of scripting or active content. Adjusting the settings within your browser to reduce or prevent scripting or active content may reduce the number of pop-up windows. Certain types of cookies are sometimes considered spyware because they reveal what web pages you have visited. You can adjust your privacy setting to only allow cookies for the web site you are visiting.
  • Use a firewall. The newest versions of both Microsoft Windows XP and Apple's Mac OS X operating system include built-in firewall software.
  • Use caution when clicking on agreements while you are using a Web-based service. Read the agreements before clicking them. Because most people do not take the time to read these agreements, you may be agreeing to let spyware be loaded on your PC. If you're not sure whether to trust a program you are considering downloading, ask the IT Service Center or enter the name of the program in your favorite search engine to see if anyone else has reported that it contains spyware. And, always read all security warnings, license agreements, and privacy statements associated with any software you download. You should also consider avoiding some of the known spyware carriers, such as:
    • CoolWebSearch
    • Kazaa
    • Grokster
    • Snood
    • Weatherbug (the free version is considered adware and it is recommended that it not be installed on your computer)
  • Don't follow email links claiming to offer anti-spyware software: Like email viruses, the links may serve the opposite purpose and actually install the spyware it claims to be eliminating.
  • Use caution if you receive online messages, scareware, that your system is vulnerable or has "known" viruses and offering software to download to correct the problem. Many times these links are actually installing spyware.
  • Beware of peer-to-peer file-sharing services. Many of the most popular services include spyware in their installation procedures. Never download an executable file from a P2P. In general, you should only download executable files from known vendors or trusted sites.
  • Watch out for cookies. Though not the worst form of spyware, they do gather information about your browsing habits and can supply the gathered information elsewhere.
  • Stop web bugs. These are spies that are activated when you open contaminated HTML email. Get rid of unsolicited email without reading it by turning off the preview pane. Also do the following in Outlook 2003 if you are using it: Tools | Options, click on the Security tab and select Change Automatic Download Settings. Make sure Don't download pictures or other content automatically in HTML email is checked.