What’s lurking on your computer?

Meranda Watling

Personal information may be jeopardized by unnoticed spyware

It’s sneaky. It’s annoying. And worst of all, it can be dangerous.

Spyware, that is.

Many computers have it. Yet many users don’t know about it, or if they do, they choose to ignore it.

“I deal with a lot of people who are just not aware of it,” Helpdesk technician Kim Price said. “A lot of students don’t have a lot of computer experience. A lot of people are limited in what they know and are busy — too busy to read up on it.”

Spyware is a type of software or code that is downloaded, either willingly or unwillingly, onto your computer.

There are several types of spyware, some more dangerous than others. Common types include tracking cookies that track the sites you visit; data miners that collect personal information; toolbars that appear on your browser and may redirect your searches to their search engine; and pop-up ads that appear when you open a Web page.

“Try a demo or free software, and at the end of the EULA (End User License Agreement) — no one reads it — scroll to the bottom, and it’ll say ‘such and such’ will also be installed,” Price said. “It’s legally done.”

Spyware is often bundled with file-sharing programs like KaZaa, but it can also be downloaded by accidentally clicking in a pop-up instead of exiting it, and some types of spyware can download themselves without the user ever knowing.

One of the worst forms of spyware, according to Greg Seibert, There are several versions of MarketScore. The most dangerous sets up a “proxy” server. So when you try to connect to a server you think is secure, the connection is actually redirected through MarketScore.

Ignoring this type of spyware installed on the system could compromise personal information, Seibert warned.

“If you download (a) web accelerator and go to Yahoo!, it will send you to their server,” Seibert said. When you enter passwords or personal information on sites redirected through the MarketScore server, MarketScore retains a copy of the information.

Seibert said MarketScore has developed a way to “fake” secure server encryption, making it look like a legitimate secure server when in reality it isn’t.

“MarketScore is basically a data miner that collects information about you,” Price said. “Using the version of MarketScore that sets up a proxy, every time you enter a password, they have a copy.”

MarketScore is just one of literally thousands of spyware programs. And unless the computer has some type of spyware removal program set up, the user may not even know they are infected.

Price and Seibert suggest running multiple spyware removal programs because each might catch something the other didn’t.

“They all don’t remove everything; there’s not one out there that does,” Price said. “I don’t put my faith in one.”

The spyware problem is getting “bigger and bigger,” Price said. She’s seen 200 pieces of spyware on one machine, and while recently helping a neighbor clean her machine, she had 38 pop-ups come up at one time.

“We get calls here everyday,” Price said. “Not a day goes by when we don’t get truckloads of calls (about spyware). People tell me it doesn’t tear up your machine, but it can block your Internet connection and slow your machine to a crawl.”

However, Price said, once people have had spyware removed, they are more diligent about protecting their computers, Price said.

“Once they’ve had a good dose of it, they do try to do a better job,” Price said.

Contact technology reporter Meranda Watling at [email protected].