with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Popups, Spammers, Spyware, Gator, GAIN, and Adware

Determined to fight back against those who abuse the benefits of the Internet and the Web? As nature photographers and writers living in a computer world, we are constantly fighting the battles of online trash and litter. We have some techniques to help you fight off the popups, spammers, spyware, Gator, GAIN, viruses, trojans, worms, and hoaxes that sneak into your computer and ruins your Internet experience. We also have a variety of tips and information on computer fun and games, using file sharing programs, and Outlook and Outlook Express, as well as how to improve your Internet search and exploring techniques.

Popups: MOST ANNOYING

Pop-up advertising or pop-up windows of any kind are probably the number one complaint from web page users. These are windows that popup with advertising when a page loads. Some web pages can host two or more popup windows, requiring the user to close each pop-up window before getting to the web page they came to see. Clicking on any of these windows sends the user to an advertising site with more information trying to convince the user to buy something. These make money for the web page host, sometimes a lot of money, but most people find them annoying and there are better ways of using web page design to promote products and services.

Traveling full-time and living on the road, sometimes our Internet connections are few and far in between. The last thing we need are time wasting popup windows some web pages offer.

graphic screen of Windows XP built-in anti-pop-up featureWith the upgrade of Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, new anti-popup tools were installed. By default, Internet Explorer now prevents every pop-up from popping up when viewing a web page unless you adjust the settings. This is great to avoid pop-up windows, but it is painful if you are downloading a file. Remember to click the yellow bar below the tool bar and address bar to “initiate” your pop up window for file downloads when clicking on a file link. It will temporarily disable the anti-pop-up feature and then you will have to reclick the file download link to reactivate the download. Firefox and other Internet browsers are now including this anti-pup-up feature, too.

For those who are really annoyed with popups, there are ways to stop the pop-ups. Some methods are free, others come with a fee.

Note: Opera Internet Browser: Opera is an Internet browser similar to Microsoft Internet Explorer said to block popups when you are viewing web pages.

Spyware: Lurking in the Background

Recently, my mother and two friends were attacked by spyware. One friend found more than 200 spyware components buried inside their computer system. In two of the cases, the intrusion of these online criminals were so extensive, the entire hard drive had to be reformated (wiped out) and everything reinstalled, monitoring constantly for more spyware elements sneaking in as each main program was reinstalled. Even though I am personally paranoid about installing programs I’m not familiar with and being cautious with every Website and email, I’ve been snagged by these criminals. This is not meant to scare you, it is meant to warn you. Even the most defensive systems are being invaded and these programs haven’t been thoroughly tested under various hardware and software conditions, so even while the spyware may be innocous, the damage it can do to your system can be horrific and a terrible time waster to repair.

Virus scanning software programs are quite sophisticated at detecting viral enemies before they attack your system, but they don’t cover the other criminals that sneak in when installing software or surfing the Internet. Spyware can sneak in and begin to track your web browsing and shopping, reporting back to advertisers and others about your habits. We have some information to help you identify if you have spyware on your computer and some ways to stop spam, including how to remove some of the worse offenders.

Spyware sounds terrible, and it is, but some spyware is installed with the computer user’s knowledge, accepting the risks using such software involves. If you install a program that informs you it includes software that will monitor your online activities and share that information with others, it is your responsibility to stop the installation or go on. When they get permission, the spyware is legal. Not every program asks. And, I cannot stress this enough, even if the spyware is legal, the software installed can cause havoc within your computer’s system as these programs haven’t been fully tested under various conditions such as Microsoft, Corel, Adobe, and other major computer software and hardware manufacturers do. There is little if any quality control and you can suffer the consequences.

The first step to prevent spyware is to pay attention to what you download and install from various Websites Programs are supposed to ask you if you want this monitoring capability installed, but many don’t. Or when they do ask, it seems innocent enough. For example, Gator and similar advertising sponsored software are supposed to help you fill out forms when shopping to speed up the process. That sounds convenient, but it doesn’t always work properly, it pops up when you aren’t interested, and can get in the way of your Internet experience. It also lurks in the background, eating up your RAM (memory) and taking up space on your hard drive. If any of these are in short supply, why bother?

The second step is to scan your computer for spyware. We recommend you begin with one of the popular shareware or trial programs that are “try-before-you-buy”. Spyware removal programs are new on the market and still finding their feet. If you find one that does a great job, sign up and send your money in so they can keep on doing the best job possible.

The key to spyware detection software is for you to use it. While some like Ad-ware offer Ad-Watch, a terminate-stay-resident (TSR) program that runs in the background constantly, most of these programs scan and detect, clean, and then quit, trusting you to regularly run the program to look for more spyware that will continue to sneak in. So set a schedule and run your spyware detection software frequently.

How Do I Know If I Have Spyware

The main way to find out if you have spyware on your computer is to run a spyware checking program like those listed above. Usually people don’t know spyware has creeped in until something looks or feels different or stops to work right. Here are some clues to look for that might indicate you have spyware on board:

  • Search tool bars or Internet browser tool bars appear floating on the screen or incorporated within your Internet browser even though you didn’t install it.
  • When you remove a piece of software, it comes back.
  • Searching through the Address Bar on Internet Explorer brings up a search page you are unfamiliar with.
  • The starting Internet page (home page) has changed to something you don’t want. When you change it, it comes back.
  • Pop-up windows with advertisements come up when you are not online or not working on the Internet.
  • More pop-up windows than you usually get begin to appear, often three or more for each Website you visit.
  • Protective software such as your anti-virus program or anti-spyware program stops working or gives you error messages.
  • New listings appear in your Favorites menu without your putting them there. When you delete them, they reappear later.
  • Your computer slows down and runs slower. It takes longer than usual to do things.
  • The lights on your modem or online connection icon flash when you are not using any online programs or activities.
  • Your phone bill has expensive phone calls you didn’t make or is unusually high.

Tips to Avoid Spyware

Run Anti-Spyware Software
If you install it, make sure to run it regularly if it isn’t running in the background. Keep it updated and current so it can do the work of finding spyware that might slip through when you aren’t paying attention.
Reboot after removing spyware and check again
Not all spyware is equal and not all spyware protection programs are equal. After you’ve removed the offending spyware, reboot your computer and check again to make sure that the spyware didn’t “resurrect” or reinitiate itself.
Keep virus checking software up-to-date and active
Not all spyware is a virus or “bad”. Nor is much of it good, but do keep your virus checking or anti-virus programs up-to-date and running as some programs can now catch spyware before it installs itself, as a backup to your spyware prevention software.
Don’t open unsolicited or unknown email
You should know by now not to open any unsolicited or unknown email (spam) to stop viruses. This technique can also stop spyware. Some spyware installs itself when you open an HTML email or attached program with an email. Delete these without previewing the email to avoid initiating the program. If you are unsure, run a virus scan on the attachment and use extreme caution.
Don’t install anything without knowing what it is
I often get calls from friends and family who install something because it looks interesting and then complain that it has taken over their machine or used up their computer’s memory. Find out about a program before you download it. Don’t depend upon the software’s web page to give you the information. Search the Internet for the program’s name to find out what people have to say about it and if they recommend it. Check with PC Magazine or PCWorld Magazine, or if the program is shareware, check the ratings at Tucows.
Don’t install anything that says it will make your life easier
Swayed by the words “We can make your life on line easier” and “Let us make your searches on the Internet easier”, many people purposefully install software they think will help them work on the Internet not realizing that they have been lured into a false sense of security. DO NOT install anything that makes great promises. They will want to help you synchronize your computer’s clock, help you search the Internet, help you post your mailing address and credit card information faster, or keep track of form information you have filled out with contact and financial information – all clues that this isn’t something you really want, but it sounds good and helpful. The software that you you are already using will help you more if you learn how to use it than any add-on product you aren’t familiar with.
Read the fine print
When you install any software, read the fine print in the end-user license agreement (EULA) which pops up during the installation to ask for your agreement before continuing. Read it carefully and check for anything that mentions the installation of any software in addition to the program you are installing. Also look for comments about gathering information, privacy, how information will be used and any hints that the program might be doing more than its single purpose. Say no and research further before proceeding if you are uncertain about what it wants to do to your computer.
Peer-to-Peer File Sharing
Some peer-to-peer file sharing services such as Kazaa,may carry spyware as add-on software. Research thoroughly before installing one of these file sharing programs to find out how to stop the spyware or find versions without spyware. Kazaa, for example, is available as Kazaa Lite++ which is spyware free.
Set your Internet browser security settings high enough
Check your Internet security options within your Internet browser to find out what they are set at, and if they are too low, raise them. For instance, in Microsoft Internet Explorer (TOOLS, OPTIONS, Security and Privacy) the setting for medium should be protection enough. Click on CUSTOM LEVEL and set the permission to “install any unrequested ActiveX control” to NO.
Turn on Your Firewall
If you have a built-in firewall (WindowsXP does), turn it on (search the help files for “firewall”). Or use a firewall software program. These will keep some of the more secretive programs from installing unnoticed.

For More Information on Spyware…

There is a lot of information on spyware on the Internet. Before permitting spyware and Internet monitoring software to be installed on your computer, make sure you understand the risks, know what they are monitoring and know what information is being sent to who and for what reasons.

Uninstalling Specific Spyware

If you are a do-it-yourself person, here are some tips to remove some specific spyware programs:

Gator
Gator, also known as “Claria” is spyware that is supposed to be helpful. It pops up to help you fill in forms automatically and remembering your private information. It only works on certain advertiser’s sites, waiting in the background, lurking, popping up to tell you how to shop, where to shop, and being an annoyance. To get rid of it, you have to remove both the Gator and the Offer Companion, the part of Gator which controls the advertisements.

To remove Gator from Windows

  • Click the START button
  • Select SETTINGS
  • Select CONTROL PANEL
  • Double-click ADD/REMOVE PROGRAMS
  • Locate Gator in the list of installed programs
  • Select and click the ADD/REMOVE button.

To remove OfferCompanion, Precision Time, Date Manager or Gator Ads

  • Now repeat steps 1 – 6 above to remove and uninstall each of the above listed program titles

If you have removed the Gator and related applications, the main software for GAIN (Gator Advertising Information Network), should automatically uninstall. If you are having problems uninstalling Gator or GAIN, check their web page for uninstalling Gator or email Gator Publishing Corporation technical support at support@gainpublishing.com.

Aureate – Radiate
These are known embedded programs within software programs. Originally known as Aureate it is now known as Radiate. The software installs itself as a Windows service program as a “browser helper application” and loads with your Internet browser software. Whenever you are using your Internet browser, it will monitor your activity including which advertising you click on and how much time you spend reading any advertising pages or popups. The information is then sent immediately to the Radiate company. The program is usually found within many shareware programs. You may or may not have been informed or asked to install Radiate as part of the installation of the software. The technology within the software is especially determined to invade your system. It is not stopped by firewalls or many spyware programs. It can be difficult to remove and removal may stop the associated program from working. To remove the program, check out the updated information at OptOut.
Cydoor
Cydoor Technologies’ spyware can be found inside of any software program. It monitors the Internet usage and rotates the advertising banners within the software associated with it, like Kazaa, iMesh, and Grokster. To remove the program, first check with Cydoor’s Website or use an updated spyware removal program as the process involves deleting entries from the Windows registry. Some programs will not run without Cydoor present, so check thoroughly before removing. [ Note: As of February 2004, all attempts to access Cydoor’s Website result in a page-not-found error.]

Search Tool Bars

Search tool bars are software programs that act like add-ins. Once installed they either float on your screen or fit within your Internet browser software to “help” you search online and find information. Not all of these search tool bars are bad, some can be helpful. Others monitor your Internet usage and send the information to advertisers and marketing companies so they can learn more about your habits online. Some monitor your activities and then pop up advertising based upon the type of information you search for and use on the Internet. If you don’t mind this happening, fine. If you do, or they prove to be an annoyance, often slowing down your computer or Internet speeds, then get rid of them. Usually these “helpful” tools do little good and only help others. If you want to improve your online habits and activities, learn how to search and use your Internet software better before installing any of these add-on tools.

As far as our research has revealed, search tool bars by Yahoo!, Google, and a few other primarily search engines and multiple search engine services may carry advertising associated with the spyware. This doesn’t mean they won’t in the future, so read through the fine print thoroughly before installing these search tool bars.

Alexa
The Alexa tool bar is available through Amazon.com and the Alexa Website. As you use it to search for web pages, it provides information on the popularity of the site and other information to help you decide whether or not to visit the page. It also collects information about how you use the Internet, which pages you visit and more. It isn’t clear exactly how much of the information gathered may violate your privacy, but currently it is thought to be more harmless than harmful. To remove the tool bar, go to CONTROL PANEL, ADD/REMOVE PROGRAMS and search for Alexa. If it doesn’t delete completely from your machine or you get errors when using Microsoft Internet Explorer, check the Alexa Website for the most current help and removal information.
Hotbar
Hotbar is another one of those helpful download tools that is supposed to help you search the Internet more efficiently. What it also does is monitor your Internet activity, searches, your time online, and collects information about the web pages you view and the data you enter in the forms. They also can “deliver advertising directly” to you based upon the information they gain from watching you surf the Internet. Hotbar will also initiate popup advertising. If you find this an invasion of your privacy or annoying, you can remove the program through CONTROL PANEL, ADD/REMOVE PROGRAMS and search for Hotbar or through a spyware removal software program. You can also remove the Hotbar software from their web site.

3 Comments

  • Posted June 12, 2005 at 15:14 | Permalink

    Bravo!

    I loved all the information you had on spyware.

    I have a question. Do you know any program that can DETECT SPYWARE in a Program that you have downloaded?

    I could then disaasemble it, remove the spyware and have a good running program. I have found this to be true for many freeware programs I have downloaded as well as PAID programs. Thanks again for your wonderful site and keep up the great work!

    Sincerely,

    Matt Mattero Ministries

  • Posted June 13, 2005 at 7:33 | Permalink

    Wow, having the ability to actually get into the code and remove the spyware and still have the software work…that is a great skill and you should consider maybe writing your own program to eliminate spyware.

    But in the interim, here are some links for more information on detecting spyware before installing, though programs like Ad-Aware and others will check programs before you install them:

    Spyware Removal Information and Tips
    Home Net Help Spyware Information and Tips

    Good luck and if you find a good resource for helping others to learn how to manually go in and remove spyware like you can, I’d appreciate the information. Thanks.

  • Simon
    Posted February 16, 2006 at 21:20 | Permalink

    Very complete information on spyware. Useful guide for novice surfer.

    Additional info and news on spyware on spywarenews.org. Kindly consider adding on “For More Information on Spyware…” section

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