Programs: Prevention Is the Best Way to Fight Adware

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Reuters) - If there is a special place in hell for telemarketers, spammers, and malcontents who unleash computer viruses, there must also be a suite set aside for the purveyors of adware.

For the uninitiated, adware is free software you can download to your computer via the Internet. It often piggybacks on other seemingly useful programs, like the ones offering to calibrate your computer clock or provide weather information -- for free.

In reality, adware can carry a heavy price.

It can reset your home page and not let you change it back.

It can add an assortment of Web pages to your list of "Favorites." some of which can be for adult Web sites.

It can add an extra line on the screen of your Web browser, advertising all kinds of things, including X-rated Web sites.

And, it can monitor where you go on the Internet, which is why it's sometimes called spyware.

But almost always, it gives you advertisements. Lots of advertisements. An overwhelming number of advertisements.

Here's one example: A friend who works at home was excited about getting high-speed Internet service until he inadvertently downloaded adware software and found it so intrusive he didn't want to go on the 'Net anymore.

He would get 10 screens of ads popping up almost as fast as he could close them. The software he installed to block the pop-ups stopped working. He found that his home page had been reset to a site called No matter how many times he tried, he couldn't change it back to the original. His productivity plummeted.

And here is another: My next-door neighbor bought a computer in November. Within two months, he had a dozen adware programs on it -- and he didn't even realize it.

These two cases are typical. One survey found that nearly three quarters of the people who had adware installed on their PCs didn't know it, and most of those who did know about it, were not aware of the damage those programs can do.

Robert Deignan, business development director for, which sells an adware-blocking product, said 80 percent of the on-screen ads people see probably come from adware or spyware they have downloaded inadvertently, and not from the Web sites they're visiting.

Whether or not you have an adware problem usually depends on what action you took when you visited a Web site and a box labeled ""Security Warning" appeared, asking the question: ""Do you want to install and run" a free program.

To the uninitiated, it may appear the program is necessary to properly view the Web page. Chances are, it's not.

Your next nightmare may also take the form of a free program that puts the outside temperature next to your computer's digital clock.

That's the hook to sucker you into clicking "Yes." Only if you read the fine print in the licensing agreement -- which is hard to find and can be even harder to understand -- would you realize that clicking "Yes" often gives the adware company permission to take partial control of your PC.

It's legal because it's in the fine print. But even the fine print isn't as candid as it should be. For example, many of the licensing agreements only mention in passing that you are giving permission to put ads on your computer, saying they are ads that "we feel will broaden your surfing experience."

Is it deceptive? Just a bit.

Does it prey on folks who don't know much about computers and are, in the best of circumstances, bamboozled by fine print? You bet.

What should you do when you get a "Security Warning?"

The simplest answer: Always click "No." Never click ""Yes" unless you've seen a licensing agreement you can understand.

If you want to find out if you have adware on your system, several Web sites will run a free test for you, but the accuracy of the scan may vary.

For example,, a great site that evaluates your computer performance and offers free advice on how to get rid of unwanted files, is very conservative. On my neighbor's computer, it identified only three adware programs.

Other sites that hawk software designed to delete adware and other problems invariably identify a lot more problems., which sells a product called "Spy Sweeper," found 11 adware programs on the same PC.

The scanning software on a third site,, said it found 12 adware programs, 2 spyware programs, and 2 programs that had taken control of the Internet browsing program.

On each of those three sites, you'll need to click "Yes" when the "Security Warning" appears so you can download the scanning programs.

But any other time, clicking "No" will save you a lot of headaches.

Next week: Getting adware and spyware off your PC.

(Gene Emery covers science and technology. Any opinions in this column are his alone. His Internet address is GEmery(at)