Crush creepy crawlers

Many of my readers like surprises - but they hate being surprised by "parasites". These programs quietly install themselves into Windows when you download other software. They can make your PC more crash-prone and your hair prematurely grey.

Many of my readers like surprises — but they hate being surprised by “parasites”.

These programs quietly install themselves into Windows when you download other software. They can make your PC more crash-prone and your hair prematurely grey.

I’ve described in recent columns how parasites ride along with music-sharing and other programs. Sometimes the freeloaders even divert online revenue from legitimate e-businesses. (See Parasites in Windows.)

Anti-virus programs and software firewalls are no longer enough to protect our PCs. Now we also require anti-parasite programs such as Ad-Aware to clean up for us. Wasn’t personal computing supposed to be fun and easy?

It turns out that the parasite problem isn’t as bad as I thought — it’s much worse.

The maddening truth is that the creepy crawlers are spreading wildly. The latest count is 10,212 different strains of parasites, including all spyware, trackware, and RATs (remote access Trojans), according to the makers of Pest Patrol, a program that kills the bugs. Its website documents a virtual encyclopedia of nightmares.

The trouble is deeply entrenched. Kevin Spatz of the Soft Design Consulting Group in New Jersey reports that he constantly receives user complaints such as “My computer is really slow”, “It always crashes”, and “I can’t get on the internet anymore”. As a direct result, “I have seen removal of viruses, spyware, parasites, and poorly implemented background programs account for nearly 60% of our business”, he says.

According to reader Richard Goldberg of dataDOC.us, one way to stop parasites from affecting users is to configure their machines so they’re not running with administrator privileges all the time. This largely deters software from installing itself.

“I recently worked on a municipal government network with 12 different locations and 250 users,” Goldberg writes. “We began to find that certain mission-critical applications were not working properly or were crashing. When we looked deeply into the systems, we began to see the results of the parasite applications.”

About two hours were required to clean up an affected PC and restore it to its pre-parasite condition.

“The most reasonable and cost-effective solution was to move the PCs away from Windows 98 because it is almost impossible to easily stop the parasites from coming in. We upgraded each workstation to XP and set up each user as a standard user,” Goldberg says. Sites had a “power user” who could log in to a given system and install something if needed. For those leery of XP, Goldberg’s approach also works well if Windows 2000 is your preferred OS.

Send tips to contributing editor, Livingston. He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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