How to Get Rid of Spyware
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By its narrowest definition, spyware is software that gets into your computer and reads your documents, tracks your internet use, and reads your address book, or worse, and reports the data back to a malicious third party. A wider definition, which should properly be called malware, includes adware, which is the kind that makes pop-up advertisements appear out of nowhere. Regardless of your terminology, however, all of the above is bad news, and if you're running Windows, I'm willing to bet there's some of it on your computer right now.
This malicious software is designed to be hard to get rid of, but a whole cottage industry has sprouted around software for its removal. In fact, there are so-called spyware removal programs that really just install more spyware (hint: never download or buy an alleged spyware solution that's advertised in a pop-up ad), but choosing the right tool for the job is no easy task. This article will hopefully point you in the right direction.
Before we begin, here's one important thing you need to know: No one tool can remove all spyware; there's just too many different species of malware for any one company to have a handle on all the time. Below I'll introduce several tools, some free and some not, and it's not a bad idea to install more than one and run each periodically for maximum protection.
Free Spyware Removal Programs
The biggest benefit of a free tool is the price, obviously. I'm a big believer in free tools, and, except in extreme cases, I think two good free tools are as good or better than any paid tool. There are caveats, of course, one of which is that support is rarely free. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, try a couple free tools before plunking down any cash and you might be pleasantly surprised. Here are my picks:
Lavasoft Ad-Aware 2007 Free
Lavasoft sells a couple versions of Ad-Aware, but the free version is pretty good, and easy to use as well. One thing Ad-Aware Free won't do is scheduled scans, which means you'll have to remember to run it periodically. Also, running it on Windows Vista can be problematic, but Lavasoft has pledged to release a Vista-capable version soon. You'll also want to tell it to update its definitions (the files which tell it how to destroy the latest malware) every time you start it, 'cause it won't update automatically.
Spybot Search & Destroy
Don't be fooled by Spybot Search & Destroy's austere web site; under the hood this program is a powerhouse. Spybot has been around for a long time, and unlike Ad-Aware it's Vista-ready and a 100% free operation. I don't find it to be quite as easy to use as Ad-Aware, but Spybot's web site has a very handy tutorial for getting started. Spybot shares Ad-Aware's inability to automatically update its definition files, so again you'll want to do it manually (which is an easy two-click operation).
Microsoft Windows Defender
Microsoft's own anti-malware program, Windows Defender, hasn't been met with rave reviews and might not remove as many malicious programs as other offerings, but it's a solid program that has a simplified, easy to use interface. If you plan to use two or more of these programs in conjunction, Windows Defender is a good choice.
Commercial Spyware Removal Programs
The free tools' caveat is the commercial tools' perk: Support. Sometimes being able to pick up the phone and get help from a human being is worth far more than the price you paid for the software, and of course extra features and increased ease of use are nothing to scoff at either. If the free tools above don't suit you, these might be more up your alley:
Webroot Spy Sweeper
Spy Sweeper has been the belle of the software reviews lately, and for good reason, consistently earning high marks in ease of use, detection, and protection. It's compatible with Windows Vista, comes with free customer support (online and phone), and has some more advanced features for power users. One aspect of Spy Sweeper I don't care for, however, is that it is "subscriptionware," which is to say you don't own the software, you rent it. It will cost you $29.95 for a year of use, $39.95 for two years, or $49.95 for three.
PC Tools Spyware Doctor
If you want a second opinion (pun intended), Spyware Doctor is a good choice. It also relies on the subscription model, though their web site isn't quite as up-front about it at Spy Sweeper's. $29.95 buys you one year of use, protection, and updates, after which you can renew it for $19.95 per year. Spyware Doctor also supports Windows Vista, and PC Tools also supplies online and phone support to customers.
Blogger since 1999, Jordan Running went pro in 2005 and never looked back. Sometimes programmer, occasional photographer, and serial tinkerer, he decided to to switch to Linux in 2001 but just hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.