Spyware is a relatively new problem for small business owners. Almost unheard of a year ago, spyware now has the dubious distinction of being as big a headache for computer users as spam and viruses. Many small business owners become aware of the problem when they notice that their local-area network is getting slower. Others start to see an endless stream of pop-up ads on employees’ computer screens, and become distressingly aware of how all this junk slows up legitimate tasks and frustrates employees. By the time many business owners realize something is really wrong, their network is infested with persistent, unwelcome code-better known as "spyware."
Spyware programs track and monitor Internet browser usage and collect various data for a third party to use for commercial purposes. The third party then uses this information to bombard you with targeted ads and messages - a marketer’s dream - based on your Internet habits. The spyware infests the user’s computer without the user’s knowledge or awareness, usually when the user visits certain web sites or downloads free software. Once the spyware is downloaded, it hides in system folders that are not easy to access. Spyware slows your computer down - sometimes as much as 40 percent - because it is always running in the background, using your processing power and Internet connection to relay the data it has collected to a third party. In addition to a noticeable slow-down, here are some other symptoms that indicate the presence of spyware:
- Unusual things happen when you open up your email or your Internet connection;
- Different toolbars start appearing when you start-up your computer;
- Pop-ups appear and soon afterwards your cursor freezes or your computer crashes;
- Various icons for programs you don’t recall installing start to show up on your desktop; or
- A different home page for a site you don’t know begins to supplant your regular home page.
Spyware is big business, and we can expect the problem to get worse because, from an advertisers’ standpoint, it delivers what marketers want - the ability to target their ad messages to an audience that has shown interest in similar products.
The best way to steer clear of spyware is to make sure your employees understand how spyware creators get their code onto to your computer. Here are some of the most common methods:
- By bundling spyware in with popular applications - including computer games and calendars. This is where spyware creators snare those of us who are in a hurry and don’t bother to read the end-user agreement in full. Read all pre-download agreements carefully. You may be agreeing to accept the spyware that comes with the files you actually want. Choose the "custom" rather than the "default" install and look at what the download involves.
- By sending "official-looking" pop-up messages. Think twice before clicking on any pop-up. Some sneaky operators will play on your emotions to get you to act without applying your normal caution. The pop up may inform you that your computer is infected with spyware and invite you to click on to find out how to get rid of the problem. Don’t fall for this or other dramatic pop-ups.
- By offering plug-ins or extra features when you enter their web site - plug-ins that will help you access the full content of an article. Unless you know and trust the company making this type of offer, don’t download plug-ins.
Makers of spyware are becoming increasingly devious and are using more sophisticated techniques to get their code onto your computer. Some spyware is able to use your emails to disseminate their code. Others fight removal by continually reinstalling a dialog box that constantly harasses users to down load the code. A particularly insidious type of spyware is capable of tracking your every keystroke to capture important personal information including passwords and credit card information.
An annoyance for all computer users, spyware can capsize small businesses that rely heavily on their systems to manage operations. Congress has begun to address the problem, and the Federal Trade Commission, prompted by anti-spyware activists, is expected to issue new regulations to inhibit hidden downloads. In the interim, most businesses now recognize the need to fight back. Few small business operators have the means to track down and de-install spyware programs without some help. The problem has spurred the start-up of anti-spyware companies who offer proven sweeper programs and continue to develop new means to combat the interlopers. Check out their offerings -
); Spychecker (www.spychecker.com
) and Spysweeper (www.webroot.com
) - to determine the best safeguard for your computer system.