Tag Archives: Spyware

An example of the exact type of email you should NOT open

Here’s a screenshot of something that appeared in my inbox recently:

2015-12-21-spam

I spend a lot of time trying to describe the kinds of emails you should avoid, but this one illustrates those concepts perfectly. Let’s look at a few warning signs:

  1. The message wasn’t expected (I’m not a USAA member, but even if I was, this isn’t a usual email)
  2. The subject line is intended to provoke a fear reaction
  3. The subject line is kind of weird, grammatically; are they saying that a “New Document” has been prevented? If “Due to Suspicious Sign-in” modifies the subject of the sentence, which in this case is “New Document,” then…okay, you get it;  it just reads weird.
  4. There is a file attached (the little paperclip icon)

What is supposed to happen with this kind of email is that the victim sees “Suspicious Sign-in” and immediately opens the message, which is most likely blank or contains instructions to open the attached file. Once the victim does that, some form of malicious software, anything from spyware to ransomware, will be installed on their computer.

What actually happens, when the recipient knows some of the warning signs, is that the message is immediately deleted and causes no harm.

Also note that this message slipped past some pretty burly anti-spam and anti-malware software. Those tools are important, but sometimes a dangerous email still makes it through. Stay vigilant!

2 people are not spying on you

Have you seen this (or something similar) show up on a website lately?

I said DON'T click on it!

If you use MyFitnessPal, WeightWatchers Online, YouTube, or any of about a million other sites, chances are that you have.

Here are some things about which you can rest assured:

  • It’s just a stupid banner advertisement
  • It seems to be showing up a lot more often since this whole mess with the NSA started and got everyone paranoid about their online privacy
  • Nobody is spying on you*
  • It probably leads to a website that will infect your computer with spyware, at which point someone will be spying on you
  • Even if it doesn’t, you don’t want what they’re selling
  • It tells EVERYONE they have “2 people” spying on them
  • YouTube, MyFitnessPal, WeightWatchers, etc., have no way of knowing whether anyone is spying on you or not
  • Do not click on it, whatever you do

*Actually, there might be people spying on you. I mean, I have no idea who’s reading this. Spies do exist, right? You might be involved in all kinds of international espionage, sabotage, subterfuge, the works. You might be tuning in to those weird “numbers stations” every night and actually have the key to decode them for all I know. But in that case, you’d probably say, “Two? Ha! More like two hundred!” if you saw this particular ad.

Ransomware: It’s a fake virus scanner, only more violent.

Last September, I wrote about fake virus scan pop-ups that you sometimes encounter while using a web browser, sometimes known as “scareware.”

What I didn’t cover was a class of malicious software known as “ransomware,” the fake virus scanner’s more violent cousin. The difference?

  • Scareware: tries to trick you into purchasing useless software and probably installs spyware, adware and other malware.
  • Ransomware: poses as a virus scanner, but locks up your computer and forces you to purchase useless software to unlock your computer. Also likely installs a bunch of other malware, in addition to the fact that you’ve just given criminals your credit card number.

It’s kind of the difference between a con artist and a mugger, I guess.

There’s no real way to tell offhand whether a fake virus scan pop-up window is scareware or ransomware. It doesn’t really matter—you don’t want it either way. The same rules for prevention apply in both cases.

Both start the same way: you visit a website and a window pops up that tells you your computer is infected with a virus. The pop-up almost always has an “OK” and a “Cancel” button. Do not click on either of these, because they both install the malware.

You can click on the “X” in the upper-right corner of the window, but I don’t even like to do that. I use “CTRL-ALT-DEL” to force the browser to close. I think the Mac version of “CTRL-ALT-DEL” is “Command-Option-Escape.”

After I’ve shut down the browser, I run a virus scan and a spyware scan. It’s sort of a pain and it takes a while, but too many people value convenience over security, and they end up paying for it. There are very few instances in which it’s not possible to find something else to do while your virus scanner runs. You don’t have to be on the Internet 24/7, you know.

Now, I’m not one to tell anybody what brand of web browser to use, but I will say one thing on the topic: since I switched from Internet Explorer to Firefox with the NoScript plug-in, I haven’t had a single scareware window pop up. I’m not telling you what to do. I’m just sayin’.

Also, I know it costs money, but you cannot afford not to do it: install some good antivirus software, keep it updated and keep your subscription current. Norton, McAfee, Kaspersky; I don’t care which one you use, just use something. No, it’s not super cheap, but if you’d rather shell out $79 to unlock ransomware than spend $69 on actual protection…well, in that case I think there’s just something the matter with you.

Finally, for an extra level of protection, install the excellent (and free!) Spybot Search & Destroy. Yes, right now. There is one annoying thing about this software, though, and it’s Microsoft’s fault: in Windows Vista and Windows 7, in order to run S&D properly, you can’t just click on the icon. You have to right-click the icon and select “Run as administrator.” You won’t be able to actually remove anything if you skip this step.

There’s a recent story about ransomware at MSNBC, with a video that shows the malware in action (and actually shows you how to unlock it with hacked registration codes).

How to avoid spyware and adware

I’ve said before that I don’t have the tech chops to get into an extremely detailed description of computer security issues, but I think its important to at least understand the basics. The minutiae of VBS or C+ programming doesn’t matter for our purposes here much as the following facts:

  1. There is a lot of malicious software out there
  2. It is important to know how to recognize it and how to avoid it
  3. It is important to keep your security software updated, and to make sure it is legitimate software from a trusted source

Let’s dive right in. Warning: this is one of my longer posts.

Basic Definitions

Malware: This is sort of an “umbrella term” for software intended to harm your computer. It includes (but is not limited to) spyware, misleading adware, viruses, worms and trojan horses.

Spyware: This is a term for software that, in some form, sends information from your computer to another entity without your consent. This information can be anything from words typed into search engines (Google, e.g.), websites visited or even keystrokes. Spyware can pose a serious identity theft risk, as it can relay financial account information (account numbers and passwords) to a third party.

Adware: Adware is software that displays advertising in some form. Not all adware is necessarily malicious (the free version of the Eudora email client contains benign adware), but sometimes it is. Often, spyware and adware are bundled together.

How Spyware and Adware Infect Your Computer

Some spyware is intentional. Some companies install keyloggers on their computers to keep tabs on employee computer use. I’m just guessing, but I’ll bet every letter you type into an FBI computer is logged.

However, the spyware I’m talking about is the kind that installs itself on your computer without your knowledge or consent. These programs can install through a variety of channels. Some of them are:

Backdoor: These programs exploit “holes” in your web browser or computer’s security features. You can become infected simply by visiting a website that has been set up to install malware, and you probably won’t even know it at the time.

Piggybacking: Sometimes software you want is bundled with software you might not want. Adware often shows up in this form, but other malware uses this method as well. I mentioned the free Eudora email client earlier. This is pretty benign adware—in return for not paying for the full version of the software, you put up with some banner ads, from which the software company earns revenue. However, you’ve also got examples like Bonzi Buddy, which was designed to appeal to children (and secretly send information about their web browsing habits to a third party). Bad scene.

Trojan Horses: A trojan horse is software that poses as useful or desirable software, but is actually spyware, adware or other malware. Some of the most common examples right now are Fake Virus Scan Pop-Ups, which I talked about a couple weeks ago. While visiting a website, a window pops up with a frantic message telling you that your computer is infected with a virus, and to click “OK” to run a scan now. This downloads software, some of which may actually even look like a real virus scanner, that can wreak havoc on your computer, to say nothing of the financial threat it could pose if it contains some really nasty spyware. I want to touch on a few examples of trojan horse software here:

MS Antivirus: This is a fake virus scanner that can disable your real antivirus and anti-spyware programs. Other than that, it’s mostly just annoying, but turning off your security software opens the door to all kinds of other infections. MS Antivirus goes by about a million different names, and it is constantly being updated to evade detection by legitimate security software, which just illustrates the importance of keeping your antivirus software updated. Pay for the subscription. It is worth it.

No-Adware: This was a trojan horse designed to confuse you with a name similar to Ad-Aware, which is a legitimate product. No-Adware is supposedly no longer considered “rogue” software, but you know what? I still haven’t forgiven them.

Tattoodle: This is an application that usually gets installed (intentionally) through Facebook. I don’t know yet if it’s malicious or just annoying, but I don’t think I care: it changes your browser’s homepage, makes itself difficult to remove and its logo is designed to make you think it’s related to Google. If it looks like malware and acts like malware, I call it malware. Just my opinion.

What To Do About Spyware and Adware

Sometimes spyware doesn’t have a whole lot of symptoms. A sudden increase in popup advertisements, constant frantic popups that claim your computer is infected, or just a sudden decrease in system performance can all be signs of a malware infection. I suppose having your identity or financial account information stolen could also be signs, but we’re not going to let it get to that point, are we?

First and foremost, it is of vital importance to install good antivirus and anti-spyware software, and to keep this software updated, even if that means paying for a subscription every year. Second and also foremost, it is vital to make sure this software is the real thing. Here are what I think of as the “Big Three” real, actual, non-malware computer security programs, along with some other software:

Norton: This is what I use. It currently comes in three versions for home users—AntiVirus, Internet Security, and 360, which range in price from $39.99 to $69.99 (although I’m pretty sure 360 is normally $79.99). As with all security software, you also have to subscribe to the updates every year, but it is well worth it.

McAfee: The Pepsi to Norton’s Coke, McAfee is another good one. It’s not my favorite, but I think that has to do more with the look and feel of the software than its actual functionality. As of this writing, its home computer versions range from $29.99 to $39.99, so it’s definitely more of a “budget” option. It works fine, though.

Kaspersky: This one actually originates from Russia. It is excellent antivirus software, and I’m pretty sure at one point years ago it was absolutely free to download and update. Alas, you have to pay for it now; prices are similar to Norton, ranging from $39.95 to $79.95.

Spybot Search & Destroy: This is free software that I highly recommend. It is not a replacement for any of the three antivirus softwares above, as it only concentrates on spyware and adware, but it is a great little backup program to have on hand. You’d be surprised how much potentially harmful stuff slips past your antivirus software. Beware of trojan horses with similar names—only get it from the website I’ve linked here.

Ad-Aware: This is similar to Spybot Search & Destroy. There is a free version still available, but you can also buy software from their site. To be honest, I haven’t used this one in a long time. Again, beware of imitators.

One final word on avoidance: I think there are certain types of websites that tend to contain more malware than others. You’re mostly safe when it comes to the giant corporate sites like Amazon, but I would never suggest you stick only to huge corporate sites.  You miss out on the whole democratic, DIY side of the Internet if you do that.

However, any time you’re viewing sites that offer pirated software, movies or music, or sites that appeal to the…ahem…prurient interests, you’re going to run into a lot more malware, especially in the form of trojan horses, than you might otherwise. So my advice is to go forth and browse, have fun and don’t be afraid to venture outside the “mall,” but try to avoid the seedy side of town.

Fake virus scan pop-ups

I don’t normally write a lot about specific computer-related issues, mostly because I don’t have the technical chops to really get into a lot of detail.

However, there is something I feel needs to be addressed: fake virus scanning software.

Have you ever gone to a website and had a realistic-looking window pop up, telling you that your computer has been infected with a virus? Usually, it will tell you to “click here” to run a “free virus scan.”

That was malicious software. If you “click[ed] here,” it very likely installed some form of spyware or adware onto your computer.

These are nasty programs. At best, they can annoy you by highjacking your homepage. so that when you open a web browser, some weird “search” page appears that logs every single thing you search for and spams you accordingly. It can lead to constant pop-up advertisements, misdirection to fake websites, and more.

At worst, they can install spyware, such as a keylogger that tracks every single thing you type on your computer, including logins and passwords. Big trouble if you happen to log in to do some online banking or bill payment.

When these fake virus scanners show up, there is always a button to “cancel,” but frankly, I don’t trust it. It could be set up to do the exact same thing as the “Install” button. I always click the “X” in the upper-right corner of the window.

Then I shut down my web browser, disconnect from the Internet and run an immediate virus scan, because I also don’t really trust that “X” I just clicked. Perhaps I am overreacting, but spyware freaks me out. Better to overreact than to give someone access to my online accounts.

If you already have a good virus scanner (I use Norton Internet Security) and are keeping your updates current (and I know you are, right?), they usually run pretty silently in the background. They might throw out a pop-up window if you’re heading straight into serious trouble, but it won’t look like just a regular “Windows window,” and it won’t ask you to install anything (you’ve already installed the software) or talk about “free trials.”

No matter what brand of virus protection software you’re using, I would also highly recommend Spybot Search & Destroy. This is a program designed specifically to target spyware, adware and other malware. Most likely, your primary virus scanner will catch everything, but it never hurts to have a little backup. Spybot S&D is free, but beware of software with a similar-but-not-quite-the-same name. I’d recommend you only get it from the site linked above.

Whatever you do, don’t be taken in by fake virus scanners.