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Devilish downloads

Ads for weight loss and dubious personal relationship enhancements abound. Here is how to get rid of them.

This summer, thousands of spawning ads splattered across the screens of dozens of computer users in my area. Ads for weight loss, dubious personal relationship enhancements, and in the nastiest of attempts at subversive advertising, ads for pop-up blockers. And when this plague struck my friends, they picked up the Batphone and called me in to get rid of it. And so did their friends. So in the spirit of the free help I gave many of them, here’s my pocket guide to clearing up the pop-up problem.

Search and destroy

The first tool to sic on spawning pop-ups is SpyBot Search & Destroy 1.3. It’s a free download, but I’d encourage you to donate something to the developer Patrick Kolla–he’s a one-man shop, and the world needs him to continue doing a good job. Download the 4.5MB file and install it. Once you’ve checked for updates, just set it to search and destroy. Don’t be surprised if it discovers more than a hundred problems–the program flags relatively benign issues such as cookies. When it’s done (and it may take half an hour), have it clear up problems. It may need to restart Windows and rescan your hard drive to get at tenacious pop-up programs.

Virus sweep

Is this pop-up PC running antivirus software? If so, are the virus signatures up to date? If you answer no to either of these questions, get a new up-to-date antivirus program. You can get Symantec’s Norton Antivirus or McAfee’s Antivirus off the shelf or off the Web. I rather like Frisk Software’s F-Prot, because it takes up fewer resources than Norton or McAfee, and costs about the same. But whatever viral scourge you pick, get it installed and run it. It may rout some of the nastier spyware–and it’s a good idea to have the protection in place anyway. The best part of SpyBot Search & Destroy is that it does throw up a shield or two to prevent re-infections from the more pesky pop-up inducers. The shame is that it isn’t 100 percent effective. You’ll sometimes find that pop-ups persist even after you’ve run the program. Never fear: there’s a whole procedure for ousting these things, and SpyBot’s only the first step.

Manual uninstall

Still plagued by random pop-ups? It may be that you actually consented to them without realizing it. In about 60 percent of the infestations I’ve dealt with, there was an aftermarket search-bar in Internet Explorer. Someone using the computer (usually a blasé teenager or an inexperienced adult) got hit with a Web ad offering a free plug-in program to “enhance” their Web experience, and clicked the “Yes” button. By now, you’ll have guessed the enhancements offered. Get to the Control Panel (from the Start button, click Settings, Control Panel) and launch the Add/Remove Programs tool. Scroll down the list looking for anything with the word search in it. MySearch, SideSearch…they’re all suspect and really not necessary. Terminate them all.

Really manual uninstall

Some programs just won’t uninstall themselves in the usual way. If you’re still left with popups after all these steps, you need to get into Program Files and terminate with extreme prejudice. (That is, hit the Delete key a lot.) Look for folders you don’t recognize, especially those with the word search in them. Simply delete them. If they won’t let you because a program’s running, restart Windows in Safe Mode (hit F8 while you reboot), then delete them. Delete such folders one at a time until you’re convinced you’re OK, then empty the Recycle Bin. If this doesn’t do the trick, run the System Configuration tool (Start, Run, enter MSCONFIG, and press Enter). Under the Startup tab, look for a random series of letters that make no sense, and look at the file they point to. It’ll be tucked in the Windows System folder. Go to that folder and delete the named file.

Don’t get fooled again

Now that you’re rid of these things, you’re free to ask yourself how you got them in the first place. You might as well ask where Legionnaire’s disease comes from. In the wrong places, it’s just in the air. Stumble into the wrong Web site (usually those reserved for teenage activities like online games or chat), and some kind of pop-up generator will latch onto your browser. Fortunately, SpyBot Search & Destroy provides ongoing protection for your computer. And getting a pop-up blocker will also help minimize your exposure–there’s one in the latest update to Windows XP (the now-infamous Service Pack 2). Pop-up blockers may also block useful spawning windows, like the ones that perform downloads at sites like Download.com. Fortunately, you can usually opt to bypass a blocked pop-up that you actually want by clicking on a menu option.

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