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Taking Out the Garbage

How to keep your PC safe from prying eyes.

Just a few years ago, all we had to worry about were viruses and spam. Lately, however, spyware has become every bit the nuisance that its two cousins have been, if not more so. In addition to supplying unscrupulous vendors with information about you and your computers, Spyware can slow your system to a crawl, ruin your registry, or, in some cases, crash Windows altogether.

In this edition of Windows Advisor, we’ll explore the various programs that can detect and defeat spyware, as well as one program that enables you to find and delete bad shortcuts and defeat the effects of sloppy programming on your Windows PC.

Be ad-aware

Arguably the best known anti-spyware program available, Ad-Aware (from Lavasoft) protects your computer not only by periodically scanning for existing threats but also by installing a de facto firewall called Ad Watch that keeps spyware from ever installing itself onto your system to begin with.

The program can detect spyware running in memory, block browser hijackers, remove tracking cookies, fix registry changes, clean startup settings, and more. And while the clunky interface identifies it as one of the first anti-spyware programs, the program is, for the most part, easy to configure and use while also having many customizable options for the power users among us.

Scanning is fast, taking less than six minutes on my 200GB hard drive, but does require a lot of CPU cycles, making whatever else you’re running on your PC sluggish until the scan is complete. In my tests, the program found 25 objects that had been infected, including two registry keys and 23 programs. And when it does find problems, the program gives you the option of deleting or quarantining them, in the event that you aren’t sure about something and want to check it out before zapping it.

The program comes in a variety of flavors, including Ad-Aware Personal, Plus, Professional, and Enterprise. The Personal version is free, while Plus costs $32 and Professional will run you $40. Enterprise is for businesses and the cost depends upon your number of PCs and the employees using them.

Steaming mad at bugs

PC Bug Doctor , which also helps you to clean up unused shortcuts and icons, is just as easy to use as Ad Aware but doesn’t offer quite as many customizable options. It also doesn’t offer live protection against new spyware, but does allow you to schedule periodic automatic system scans for, say, three in the morning, when it won’t interfere with your work.

Scanning under PC Bug Doctor is slightly slower, taking almost ten minutes to perform the task, but doesn’t hog the CPU like Ad-Aware does, which means you can let it run in the background while continuing to work in Windows.

In my tests, PC Bug Doctor found 620 errors, 429 of them being missing shortcuts. It also included 144 CLSID (Class Identifier) errors, which is an ID for an ActiveX or OLE 2.0 object which is missing. Of the spyware that Ad-Aware found, PC Bug Doctor found both of the infected registry entries but only two of the programs.

If you’re going to use PC Bug Doctor, we’d also recommend using another anti-spyware program in conjunction with it, since the program’s main strength lies more in finding problems caused by program glitches and spyware rather than the spyware itself. The program at costs $20 to use for a month, $60 to use for a year, or $130 for lifetime use of the software.

Spying on the spyware

SpyBot is every bit as clunky as Ad-Aware, if not more so, and works in much the same way. The program does allow you to identify specific threats (i.e., a WebTrends Live tracking cookie) and decide individually whether or not to delete them, rather than zapping or quarantining everything in one fell swoop. And if you use Internet Explorer, the software will help you to “immunize” your browser against malicious websites by blocking access to any pages known to contain spyware.

In my tests, SpyBot found every one of the corrupted files that Ad-Aware did, but only one of the two affected registry entries. However, because it identified the threats, I was able to deal with them more effectively than simply blanket deleting everything. The entire scan took seven minutes, and didn’t seem to affect the speed of the other programs running concurrently with the scan. Searching for updates to the database, however, took thirty minutes, presumably because other users were updating at the same time, causing a lag on SpyBot’s servers.

SpyBot is donation-ware, which means that while you should pay for it if you use and enjoy it, you don’t have to.

Which one should you use?

Our best advice? At least two of them. Spyware is so unpredictable that it’s almost impossible for one program to catch it all. By using two or more anti-spyware suites, running concurrently, you’ll have the best chance of catching intrusive cookies, registry-altering programs, and malicious macros and of keeping your Windows PC infection-free. Inoculate now, (against viruses as well as spyware) and save money on PC repair bills later.

Contributing Editor Joe DeRouen writes Windows Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.

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