Sunday, May 25, 2008

Free Tools come with a Big Cost

From the newsletter 9/20/2006
By …. a network administrator for a non-profit organization.

There are a multitude of free programs available on the Internet, ranging from toolbars to full fledged and quite useful applications. Some of these applications are just fine and are given away free of charge for many altruistic and promotional reasons. You usually have to look kind of hard to get the best freebies.

I am referring instead to the ones that jump out at you regularly in the form of pop-ups, spam advertisements and banner ads. These 'freebies' come at a hidden cost that is not realized right away, sometimes not until it is too late.

Some of these applications offer to 'help' you out by giving you access to weather alerts, stock tips and other seemingly useful information. They often help themselves instead to your personal data and habits. There are valid and safe applications that will provide these services, many of them free as well.

The best way to check is to go to an Internet search site, such as Google, and type in the name of the application you are thinking about getting and the word spyware, for example "weatherbug spyware". Preceding link assumes you are using Firefox.

One of the more prevalent types of 'helpers' are toolbars. I don't mean toolbars that are a critical part of most programs; I am referring to the multitude of 'free' toolbars that are offered by many sites and pop-ups. There are a lot of toolbars out there claiming to help you search for all your favorite things. Some even claim to help protect you from bad things on the Internet.

Even the seemingly innocuous toolbars offered by some of the bigger websites (e.g., MSN, Yahoo, and Google) will interfere with functions that do not originate from the issuer's site. As for claiming to block pop-ups, if you are using a recent and updated version of one of the popular Internet browsers this function is redundant.

The other 99.9 per cent of toolbars generally deliver something not advertised. Usually that something is spyware and/or viruses. While some spyware is fairly harmless, some are quite dangerous to your data safety. They can range from recording what sites you visit to recording your every keystroke, including passwords, and opening up your computer to malicious attacks by viruses or hackers.

The most common indication that you may be infected with spyware is an increase in the number of pop-up ads that come up when connected to the Internet and a general slowdown of your computer.

Some common spyware-laden applications to watch out for are WeatherBug, CoolWebSearch, Gator, Bonzai Buddy, KaZaa, Limewire and other Peer2Peer applications, and most toolbar applications. No links here!

Be aware that some applications that purport to rid your computer of spyware are in fact spyware themselves. The two best anti-spyware applications out there are Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy. I prefer the latter myself, mainly because there are spoofed copies of Ad-Aware out there that are actually malicious applications. A good place to download these is, a long time reputable site run by CNet.

Still, be on the lookout anywhere you download programs, because even a reputable site can have stuff from less than honorable sources.

Feel free to post any comment you may have.

Thank you in advance.

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