On Computers

Adware, Spyware and My Battle with Pest Patrol

Jack Imsdahl, jack@oncomputers.info

01 February 2004

Adware, Spyware and My Battle with Pest Patrol

Spyware, adware, etc. is a real problem and shows no signs of slowing it's exponential rate of growth. It's everywhere. There's hardly a more sleazy segment of computing except porn sites. Fortunately, there are both free and low-cost tools which are effective in countering these threats.

And some of them ARE threats, too. Many just serve up advertisements, which is annoying, but hardly a threat to anything more than one's peace of mind, and perhaps one's workflow. Others, more sinister in nature, track one's work and/or surfing habits and make the information so collected available to advertisers who then target their offerings to you based on what they perceive as your interests. Some, however, collect passwords, credit card numbers and other personal data or log keystrokes. More and more, identity thiefs are obtaining their data from programs of this sort. So, having this kind of program loose on one's machine has potentially serious consequences.

The first application I was aware of to deal with things like this was Lavasoft's Ad Aware, which is still a standard in my toolbox. Lots of my friends depend on it, too. Lavasoft has kept updating it and the definitions it uses in it's scans and because of this effort, Ad Aware has remained useful and effective over the several years I've used it. I've always used the free version, but there are different versions and licenses available, depending on whether you are an individual user or a corporate or government entity and what your scanning needs are.

Spybot Search and Destroy is another well thought of application for this purpose. It dates back almost to the debut of Ad Aware and has a good reputation. I run it often, too.

Unfortunately, as the problem of adware/spyware is so large and changes so rapidly, it's not possible to rely on just one application keeping up. To be safe, you need more, in the (often realized) hope that the second or third application will catch something the previously run ones missed. I actually use several of these apps and am always looking for others to add to my arsenal.

Joe had good luck with Pest Patrol. It installed and ran well and found several adware/spyware installations that another application had passed by without raising an alarm.

My own experience with Pest Patrol did not go so well. I originally tried it on two machines, mine and my wife's. (You know you're being adventurous when you install less than well known applications onto your wife's machine.)

Both machines are running Windows 2000 Professional. On my machine, the installer froze several times and had to be restarted. At one point, I gave up on it. A return to the problem when I was in a more patient mood and the machine had been rebooted yielded a complete installation on the first try. Prior to the test of Pest Patrol, I had scanned my machine with another application and taken careful note of what it had found. Since I had done some surfing with IE 5.5, I had 33 items, suspicious cookies and such, on my list. Pest Patrol found only two of these and no additional ones. Obviously, something was not right.

The installation on my wife's machine went smoothly and the original scan found every item on the list I had made after running a different spyware removal app.

At this point, I wasn't sure what to think of Pest Patrol. Obviously it could do a good job, but there was a question in my mind as to it's reliability. I did what any good geek would do in a similar situation; I talked some friends into giving Pest Patrol a try. All told, my friends ran it on 14 more machines. All but 2 were XP boxes, either Home or Pro. There was one failure to install and one reluctant install very much like what I experienced. But in every other case, it went on well and apparently ran perfectly. Many times it found suspicious items that another detection program had missed. Those that uninstalled the application (including myself) found it uninstalled well.

Pest Patrol gets a qualified favorable recommendation from me. You have to pay $39.95 (US) to use it over the long term, but there is a fully functional demonstration version. I recommend you get the demo and wring it out for a bit to make sure it installs and runs on your particular machine before springing for the full app. It obviously works well in at least most circumstances and this is not the first program to have a few problems installing on some machines. Rebooting before attempting to install seems to be the key to success. (Remember that, in the end, we got it onto 15 of 16 machines. Only one failed to install at all and two gave a bit of trouble. And once installed, it ran on every machine. Our problems hardly constitute a damning indictment.)

I also tried SpyKiller 2004 in the dead of night, last night. It seemed okay, though I intend using it more before I comment for the record. What their site pitches as an online scan is really a 30 day demonstration download and this lack of clarity has me investigating it further. I do not like ambiguity in areas such as this at all. There will be a further report on this at some future date.

We're going to be seeing more and more of this type of security scanning application as time goes on. It's definitely a growth industry. McAfee just brought out their own adware/spyware/trojan scanning application a couple weeks ago. I've not tried it yet, nor do I know anyone who has, so I've nothing to report beyond it's existence.

This past week, there was a new and potentially disturbing development in the spyware wars. Cnet's news.com site is reporting that their affiliate, download.com, has removed an application supposedly for spyware scanning called SpyBan from it's roster because the application actually installed spyware in the form of the “look2me” keystroke logger! The company which published SpyBan (NicTech Networks of Minneapolis, MN) has taken down it's web site in the wake of inquiries by Cnet reporters. The only way to view it is by calling up a page Google has cached. The firm is not answering email queries about the program.

Every day it gets a bit harder to tell the good guys from the bad guys, doesn't it?

Lavasoft Ad Aware

Spybot S&D

Pest Patrol

Spykiller 2004

McAfee AntiSpyware

© 2004 Jack Imsdahl

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