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Spyware is not a new phenomenon, but rather it’s gotten its fair share of the limelight with an increasing amount of malicious Internet sites that take advantage of inherent weaknesses in Internet Explorer.

The definition of Spyware is a loose one that overlaps with other terms.  In general, a spyware program will slowly collect information about yourself, your computer, and your Internet usage.  This information will later be transmitted to a third-party for targeted advertisements and pop-up advertisements against your computer.  There are other key terms in this category like adware and malware.  The three are closely related into the general group of ’bad crap that you can’t necessarily prevent while surfing the web’. 

Adware is just a term for programs that are ad-supported.  Many major developers use adware to pay for their free downloads (like Eudora and Opera).  Adware in this sense is not malicious.  But it can get out of control if someone wishes to do so.  Malware is a category of programs that are designed specifically to do harm to your system.  Malware can modify your operating system, your startup, and the way Internet Explorer works.  This is the worst of the three classes of ’bad things’ that can afflict your computer, aside from a virus (which we’ll handle in another article!).

How do you know if you have spyware on your computer?  If you don’t know the answer to this question, then I can already guarantee you that your computer has something on it that you never agreed to have.  Spyware finds its way onto your hard drive in a variety of ways.  Most come through the various security holes in Internet Explorer.  While most can be avoided if you simply answer ’NO’ to any download or installation requests that you have not initiated, some take it a step further and totally slip into your system without your knowledge.

Common signs of spyware are: pop-up advertisements coming out of nowhere (even when IE is not running), strange icons in your start bar, unwanted icons on your desktop and start menu, unknown processes running in your task manager (we’ll get to this in a bit), website redirects (you try to go to a search page but are then re-directed to a crappy one), and reduced computer performance.

I’ve seen systems completely debilitated by spyware before.  It’s not a pretty picture!  Many of the newer spyware variants are difficult to get rid of and can seriously alter your operating system.  What’s worse: spyware isn’t going away.  People are starving for cash on the Internet after the dot-com boom.  Spyware happens to be a good way to earn back that money, albeit maliciously.  That’s why prevention is more important than removal in this case.  In the following sections we will discuss how to prevent spyware from finding its way onto your system, and then how to get rid of the ones that do happen to slip by.