My dog Shaggy isn't the only one in our house to attract parasites. Our PCs are also vulnerable.
They come in several forms — viruses, spam e-mail messages, pop-up ads, hacker attacks and "spyware" — and they are extremely annoying. Unlike those fleas and ticks, these parasites are not part of nature. They're inflicted on us by unscrupulous people who are collectively taking much of the joy out of using personal computers.
Spyware is named because it is software that does something to jeopardize your privacy, such as recording the Web sites you're visiting so that companies can pitch products based on your surfing habits. Aside from the privacy and security issues (which are major), spyware also slows down your computer because the software is always running in the background, using processing power and, in some cases, sending extraneous data over your Internet link. It can greatly diminish the speed of your Internet connection.
Spyware often piggybacks on software that you load on your machine, such as file-sharing services that people use to download music or programs that display animated cursors or help you remember passwords.
My friend Joanie is a typical victim. Her computer, which runs Windows ME and is connected to a digital subscriber line, was almost unusable due to the enormous number of pop-up ads that would appear just about every time she opened an Internet-related program or visited a Web site. I'm not talking about the occasional advertisement that is associated with a Web site but a steady stream of ads that popped up when she loaded AOL software, Outlook Express or Internet Explorer. What's more, her computer was running extremely slowly. That modern Pentium 4, with plenty of memory, was performing like an old 368 machine, like a young dog moping around as if it were one foot from the grave.
It took me about a half-hour, but by using a program that comes with all versions of Windows except Windows 2000 and software I was able to download from the Internet, I was able to eliminate the pop-ups and speed up her computer.
The first thing I did was to run a program called MSCONFIG. This program is not on any menus. You can find it by clicking on the Start button, selecting Run and typing MSCONFIG. That launches a configuration program that, among other things, allows you to prevent applications from starting up automatically when you turn on your machine. You should use this program with a great deal of caution, but you can use it to eliminate programs that take up memory and processing power as well as jeopardize your privacy. You can see the programs by clicking on the Startup tab. Some, like your printer drivers and anti-virus software, are important and should not be unchecked. Other programs may be less important or completely unnecessary. You can uncheck any program and, if it turns out to be important, you can go back and recheck it, so be sure to write down everything you uncheck. Some of the common programs that take up memory but may not be necessary include AIM (automatically launches AOL instant messenger), RealSched (runs the Real media player, but it will run anyway even if it's not checked) and Microsoft Office (loads Office applications slightly faster but not enough to really matter). You may also find additional software from your PC maker that you should leave there though even some of that may not be necessary.
Again, I want to caution you to be careful how you use this program because you could wind up eliminating a program you need. I've posted links to several guides about this program at www.pcanswer.com/msconfig.htm.
The most useful tool for cleaning up Joanie's machine was a program called Spybot Search and Destroy from a small German software company called PepiMK Software. You can download this program for free from Download.com and are encouraged — but not required — to make a donation to its author, Patrick Kolla, to help him with his work. The program is similar to the free version of Ad-aware from Lavasoft. Both programs are good, but Spybot is more aggressive and gets rid of programs that Ad-aware leaves behind.
The program will scour your computer's memory and hard drives for any programs or "cookies" that rob you of your privacy or your productivity. Each program it finds has an explanation of why it's there and whether it's safe to remove. By going along with the program's recommendations, I was able to free my friend Joanie's machine of all the spyware and eliminate all those pesky pop-up ads. After I restarted her machine, there were not only fewer pop-ups but the machine was much faster.
Spyware software does not eliminate pop-up advertisements associated with Web sites. You can get rid of those ads by using programs such as Pop-Up Stopper, a free program from Panicware, but you have to be careful how you use it because some Web sites use pop-ups for important information. The software will alert you when it suppresses pop-ups, giving you the option of displaying them. The company offers a $29.95 professional version that allows users to specify Web sites that can provide them with pop-up messages.
Google is experimenting with a pop-up blocker on the beta test version of its Google Toolbar. You can download a free copy at toolbar.google.com/index-beta.
So, thanks to some clever technology, both my dog and my PC have fewer parasites. Now, if only I could find some software that would get Shaggy to stop chasing the cat around the house.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid
By Larry Magid