Spyware, the newest and nastiest online plague, can paralyze or
commandeer a computer. Help is hard to find, but it's out there.
By Terry McDermott, Times Staff Writer
It can, and often does, start something like this:
You're online, maybe searching for a specific piece of information,
maybe just cruising the Web. I was investigating new search
technologies that were advertised as useful in dealing with variations
in the spelling of names and had read that Lycos, a pre-Google
Internet portal and search engine, had developed some.
I found links for Lycos and clicked on one. That was the beginning.
Within minutes, my computer was swamped with advertisements - pop-ups,
pop-unders, pop-all-overs. There were so many I couldn't close them
before others started appearing. I had to shut the computer down.
When it restarted, my Web browser had a new pornographic home page,
and soon another flood of advertisements was underway. This time, I
was able to get rid of most of it and resume working.
It went on for days. The blizzard of ads sometimes thinned, sometimes
thickened. At times, there were so many that the computer couldn't
process them all and froze. Every time I restarted, my home page was
reset to the pornographic site. Every time I tried to do a Google
search, a Lycos search engine appeared instead. New items for services
called Bargain Buddies and Deal Helper were added to my Web favorites
I deleted these entries, but they would mysteriously reappear. Once,
when I was being buried yet again by ads, I heard my computer modem
dialing a telephone number. My computer is connected to a broadband
Internet access service, so the only time I ever used the modem was to
send and receive faxes. I couldn't imagine why the modem was
dialing. More to the point, I couldn't stop it.
I have been using PCs since 1985 and have installed hard drives,
operating systems, memory, CD-ROM drives and countless software
programs. I've written some rudimentary programs to automate common
word-processing tasks. I vainly considered myself a computer
So what did I do? I cursed and screamed. I tried to turn the modem off
with software switches. Finally, I did what any sophisticated computer
user would do -- I yanked the telephone cord out of the wall, then
began wildly deleting every suspicious file I could find on my system.
That worked to a limited extent. I installed a pop-up ad blocker and
downloaded free programs that were supposed to rid me of the plague
that had descended.
Most days, I was able to slog along and there were even times I
thought the fixes had worked. But the computer was still agonizingly
slow, and the ads and the hijacked Web searches invariably
reappeared. Then a month later, I received a bill for $25 from some
company I had never heard of. It was for the telephone call my
computer had made, to Britain it turned out.
The Internet, at once one of the wonders of the modern world and one
of its least likable neighborhoods, has suffered a series of
afflictions, scams and perversions throughout its brief history. The
latest and in many ways most frustrating is the one I was now facing --
Spyware is a broad category of software distributed online, usually
without a user's knowledge, to millions of personal computers around
the world, often crippling them in the process.
It includes several subcategories, including: