How to detect and remove spyware

Arm yourself with the knowledge and tools to protect your PC from spyware’s malicious work.

Spyware is one of the biggest threats to your privacy and the security of your data. It is also a key tool used by Internet criminals to gather log-ins for on-line banking accounts.

Besides the security threat, it’s also the number one cause of system slowdowns on computers because it uses precious system resources, including RAM (memory) and hard drive space.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is your system slow?
  • Do unwanted pop up boxes show up?
  • Does your web browser go to a website when it starts that you don’t want?
  • Is your Internet connection intermittent or strangely not working?
  • Do you suffer strange system crashes?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, your system likely has one or more spyware infections on it.

For instant help, hit our helpful PANIC BUTTON! (it’s a spyware scanner you can use right away to check for infections) or read on.

Below we show you how to rid yourself of spyware. To understand what shape your system is in, you should do a quick spyware scan of your computer with Webroot Spy Sweeper, an award winning anti-spyware program to see what state your system is in.

Note: The scan is free. You have to upgrade to enable spyware removal. But simply use it as a diagnostic tool if you prefer.

If you’re not ready to do that or want to try more antispyware tools simply read on.

Q. What is spyware?

A. Spyware comes in various forms, but basically it is a program or piece of information on your computer that sends data about you or your computer habits to someone else on the Internet, without your permission and usually without your knowledge. It might go to a company that is collecting data, or a thief seeking to steal access to your computer, on-line banking accounts or personal data. It also is used to collect information for identity theft

Spyware can also be a program that places unwanted ads on your computer. Cookies can even be considered spyware. They are little pieces of information placed in your web browser to track your web habits. This is useful sometimes because cookies let a website “know” that you have visited it before, and let you on without requiring you to type in a user name and password every time you happen to drop by. Another positive use of cookies is that they can keep track of your progress through a web store, remembering your order as you process it or keep shopping. They are also used to customize website ads to your likes and dislikes.

Learn more about spyware and how to get rid of it with free anti-spyware software in Andy Walker’s book, Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Security Spam Spyware and Viruses.

Q. Why is spyware bad?

A. For one thing, it can hog precious system resources like memory and hard disk space. If your computer starts to run really slowly, but it never used to, then it is very likely infected with spyware. If you have never done a spyware scan, I can almost guarantee there is spyware on your system slowing things down and snooping on you.

Spyware can also compromise your privacy, providing outsiders with information about your computer habits. If a spyware program installs a keylogger on your computer, it can capture your keystrokes and send them to a third party. Again, you won’t see any obvious evidence that this is happening. Keyloggers can potentially expose your user IDs and passwords to thieves. Some spyware are Trojan horses which allow someone to log into your computer from theirs, and use yours for their own purposes like sending spam or launching malicious attacks on other computers on the Internet, making it look like you are at fault.

Q. I get that it’s bad – I just want to get RID OF IT!!! Is there any software available to help me eliminate spyware?

A. I know how you feel. Yes, there are a lot of good anti-spyware programs out there. I suggest a two-pronged approach:

Install these two free anti-spyware programs and run scans with them – I have found that regularly using Windows Defender and Spybot Search & Destroy will eliminate 70% of all known spyware. Windows Defender is Microsoft’s free anti-spyware program. It only works with Windows XP, Windows 2000 and Windows Vista.

(Both programs are free, but note that you will have to download a program to prove your copy of Windows XP, 2000 or Vista is legal before getting Windows Defender).

Unlike anti-virus programs, you can run more than one anti-spyware program on your system. Click the links above to get copies of these.

  1. Recommended: Get a copy of Spy Sweeper (from Webroot), and install and run it.

So why spend $29.95 when there are free anti-spyware programs out there? Here’s why: When I was host of the TV show Call for Help, we ran lab tests to see which anti-spyware programs would clean all spyware. We found that there was no program that could do it all, but if you installed the free two programs above and Spy Sweeper, you have a pretty much guaranteed protection from all spyware.

It may seem like overkill, but – unfortunately – that’s the nature of anti-spyware programs – there’s no one-step solution, although, of all the programs we tested, Spy Sweeper performed near the top, as did Spyware Doctor, which I also like very much.

Q. How does spyware get on my computer?

A. There are several ways. Sometimes it arrives as an automatic (and hidden) download from a website you are surfing. This happens a lot on porn sites. Also, sometimes, if you download a free or illegal piece of software, spyware can be embedded in the installation process. Or spyware can get on your computer via an e-mail attachment that you shouldn’t have opened. If you get infected by a Trojan horse it can download spyware onto your computer too.

Q. I have a spyware remover program installed, but it doesn’t remove a particular type of spyware on my computer. What can I do?

A. Just like your anti-virus program, you need to update the signatures (also called “definitions”) in your anti-spyware program so that it will catch new spyware programs that are released. Go into the spyware program and see if it has a method to update these. Any good anti-spyware software will make it easy to do this and may be doing it automatically already.

Q. My Internet Explorer has been hijacked (in other words, my browser’s home page has been changed to one I don’t want and I can’t change it back). What can I do?

A. We recommend that you download the free program called Trend Micro HijackThis, and manually remove the spyware that is hijacking your browser. Here’s a step by step article on how to do that – you won’t find free instructions like this that are this good anywhere else on the Internet! How to fix a hijacked browser.

Spy Sweeper, Spyware Doctor, Windows Defender,and Spybot Search & Destroy also have some capabilities to remove browser hijackers.

Q. How can I delete spyware manually?

A. It’s not easy, but the steps are outlined in the security chapter of Andy Walker’s book Windows Vista Help Desk

You can also remove spyware by turning the program off in your StartUp area. To learn how to do that, read this Optimize Windows XP article.

Q. What can I do to stop spyware?

A. Actually, there are a few things you can do.

  • Don’t download programs by companies you are not familiar with.
  • Avoid shareware and freeware.
  • Don’t download illegal or pirated software.
  • Set your browser security. With Internet Explorer, click Tools > Internet Options > the Security tab, and move the slider to MEDIUM or preferably HIGH. The only problem with this is it may block access to some websites you want to see. Ultimately, your best bet is to get an anti-spyware program and scan your system regularly, making sure you keep your signatures/definitions current.

Q. What can I do if my web browser’s homepage is hijacked by spyware?

A. Here’s a column on how to fix that: Stand up against hijackers.

Q. What about free anti-spyware programs? Any good?

A. Yes, you might consider Spybot Search & Destroy, AdAware, or Windows Defender (formerly known as Microsoft Anti-Spyware).
All are good, and all solve problems with varying levels of success and ease of use.

Q. Great advice, got any more computer threat-related columns?

A. Sure do! See our Anti-Spam FAQ and our Anti-Virus Center.

Q. I still have questions, or need assistance with a particular problem. Where can I get help?

A. Try our free Tech Help Forums. You may also want to look at our Emergency Help page.