Inside Spyware: Part Three

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted July 19, 2005

Only You Can Prevent Spyware and Adware
In part two, we learned how to identify and remove spyware. If you've found and removed these unwanted pests from your PC, or you've been fortunate enough to have never encountered them to begin with, now a good time to talk about how to keep your system clean. Ninety percent of avoiding spyware is education and common sense.

If you've experienced spyware infestations or attacks in the past, chances are you're still vulnerable unless you made changes in your policies, your online behavior or in the way you detect such vermin.

Safe E-Mailing
You should know by now that opening spam or any e-mail from persons unknown or with an unexpected attachment is unwise. In addition to viruses, RATS (remote access trojans) and other programs can be present in e-mail attachments. Web sites advertised in unsolicited e-mail can try to plant dialers or other types of pests on your computer.

If you use Outlook or Outlook Express for your e-mail, there are settings you can adjust to make your e-mail safe from spyware and viruses. The Preview Pane, which lets you view e-mail while keeping your mailbox on the screen, has been a cause of concern among e-mail users, especially if  scripting or ActiveX remains enabled. There have been reports of viruses, such as the KAK-Worm, spreading by automatically opening e-mails. Malicious content like the KAK-Worm exploits security holes in the software, so enabling or disabling the Preview Pane is not the ultimate issue. Keeping up with patches and security fixes is a better long-term solution.

To disable the Preview Pane in Outlook, click on the View menu. For more information on securing Outlook and Outlook Express, read this article.

Safe Surfing
There's a lot to see on the World Wide Web, but you can't always be sure where it's coming from. If you visit Web sites that are not published by well-known publishers, it's even more important to regularly scan for pests. Pay close attention if you visit Web sites that advertise "too good to be true" deals or feature pornography.

Be careful what you download. Read all dialogue boxes carefully and close anything that looks suspicious. When closing dialogue boxes or pop-up advertisements, be sure to use the proper "X" to close the window. The Web is full of ads that feature mock "Xs" or "Close" or "OK" buttons within the ad. Clicking on them actually clicked on the ad itself. If you're not sure how to safely close a window that has opened in your browser, right click on the window in your Windows Taskbar (usually at the bottom of your display) and click on "Close."

Certain ads that appear online attempt to pass themselves off as security alerts or messages from tech support (these are called FUIs, or Fake User Interface ads). If you're using a computer within an organization, communicate with your tech support staff if you're unsure whether a message is legitimate, and familiarize yourself with how tech support communicates with the computer users in your organizations.

File-Sharing Applications and Spyware
If you use file-sharing applications to trade multimedia files, you are at a higher risk than most to be infected by spyware. There are a number of security risks posed by file-sharing software, including the installation of dialers and spyware bundled with file-sharing applications, as well as Internet connections that do not close and mislabel content.

We recommend that you read this consumer alert — issued by the Federal Trade Commission — about the use of file-sharing applications and the potential dangers.

File-sharing programs have created numerous headaches for colleges and universities, and several of them have set up Web pages alerting students to the legal and technical consequences of file-sharing software. Some of these pages give tips on minimizing the risk, while others attempt to dissuade the use of file-sharing completely. They serve as informative guides, especially if you need draw up your own policies. Examples include St. Norbert College and Duke.

Browser Settings
The Windows operating system and Internet Explorer browser come with variable security settings. While the most convenient way to surf the Web might appear to be with the security settings on low, that's also the most dangerous.

Central to the issue of securing your Web browser is controlling ActiveX, which is the name for a set of controls that can be automatically downloaded and executed by your browser. While most of these controls are useful and help you experience content online, they can be used for malicious purposes.

Typically, you'll find that legitimate ActiveX controls are "signed" by their publishers. Ultimately, you want to OK the download of author-signed ActiveX controls and leave the rest alone. You can do this by adjusting your computer's security settings. Just follow these steps:

In Windows go to: Settings/Control Panel/Internet Options/Security. Highlight the Internet icon and click "Custom Level." Make sure the following settings are checked:

  • Download signed ActiveX scripts = Prompt
  • Download unsigned ActiveX scripts = Disable
  • Initialize and script ActiveX not marked as safe = Disable
  • Installation of Desktop items = Prompt
  • Launching programs and files in a IFRAME = Prompt
You have now set your browser to alert you with a prompt when it attempts to download and install what could be legitimate content and ignore questionable content.

Now you want to check the list of "trusted publishers," which is a list of programmers (individuals or companies) whose ActiveX components can be downloaded without warning.

In Windows go to: Settings/Control Panel/Internet Options/Content. Click on the "Publishers" button. If you see any names on there you are not familiar with, delete them so their components cannot be installed without first prompting you.

Stop by tomorrow for part four of the series when we discuss even more ways to prevent spyware.

Adapted from intranetjournal.com.

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