Article, March 2007
Spybot: Useful Free Utilities plus Spyware Protection
By Ira Wilsker,
APCUG Director; Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host
Iwilsker@apcug.net (click to email author)
http://www.safer-networking.org – Main Page
http://www.safer-networking.org/en/index.html - Information
http://www.safer-networking.org/en/download - Free Download
http://www.sysinfo.org – Paul Collins Startup List (among others)
On one of my recent radio shows (KLVI 560am 1-3 pm Saturdays), I had three callers within a single half-hour period who had a similar problem with their computers. They all had computers that were sluggish as well as had apparent software conflicts based on the symptoms presented over the phone. They all had a lot of icons in the bottom right corner of the screen adjacent to the clock, indicating that too many programs were probably loaded when the computer booted. My on-air diagnosis for all three was the same; they needed to clean up their “startup”, or list of programs that load every time the computer was turned on. I asked the first caller if he had a utility installed on his computer, the very popular and free “Spybot Search & Destroy.”
Spybot Search & Destroy is an enormously popular utility best known for its excellent ability to detect and destroy spyware and adware on computers, as well as providing full time protection from over 16,000 spyware programs through its “Immunize” feature. Published reviews generally rate Spybot very well, and PC Magazine gave Spybot its coveted “Editors’ Choice Award.” According to some published sources, tens of millions of copies of Spybot have been downloaded. Once the program, currently version 1.4, is downloaded from http://www.safer-networking.org/en/download and installed, it will go online to download updates, and then offer to immunize the computer from spyware. Normally, the program will then do a complete scan of the computer for spyware, adware, malicious and tracking cookies, registry entries installed by malware, and other nefarious items. The user is then given the option to remove all of the detected malware (usually a good idea), or select what actions should be taken. Spybot typically offers weekly updates, usually on Wednesdays, to keep its protection and features up to date. It would be a good practice for the user to re-scan the computer for new malware attacks with each update, and to immunize the computer with any new immunities posted.
Spybot, while an excellent anti-malware utility, also has a lot of other features which are frequently unknown to most of its users. Many useful utilities are built into Spybot that can improve computer performance, and promote safe computing practices. The default install of Spybot has a simple menu bar at the top of the page with only four choices, File, Mode, Language, and Help. The File menu only offers “Check for Problems” and Exit as its choices. Language allows the user to select any of the five built in languages for the software, German, English, French, Spanish, or Italian. Help is self explanatory offering help topics and a tutorial, as well as a link to make voluntary online donations to support the continuation of the very worthwhile Spybot service. The most mysterious item on the menu is “Mode”, offering only a choice of Default or Advanced settings; Advanced is where a world of helpful utilities opens allowing the user to take better control of his computer.
By clicking on Mode – Advanced a new column opens on the left of the program offering a variety of options, Spybot (the main scan and immunize program), Settings, Tools, and “Info & License.” Settings simply allows the user to customize the Spybot experience, but with the defaults providing totally adequate service. “Info & License” shows the version number and most recent update, credits, another link for donations, and historical statistics for Spybot’s previous scans. It is the “Tools” button that opens a panoply of useful utilities to improve computing performance and security. Over a dozen utilities and features are shown which can perform a variety of tasks. One integral utility is “Secure Shredder” to where unwanted files or data can be dragged and then automatically deleted and overwritten with random characters making the material virtually unrecoverable. Internet Explorer and Microsoft utilize a language called “ActiveX”, and the “ActiveX” tools selection will open a window showing all of the ActiveX software resident on the computer. Sadly, some miscreants create malware in Microsoft’s ActiveX, and these undesirable and potentially dangerous programs will be labeled in red by Spybot for instant removal, while legitimate and safe ActiveX utilities will be indicated as safe by a green icon.
Many websites and software titles install a type of program into Internet Explorer called a “Browser Helper Object”, or more commonly, just BHOs. While many are legitimate and useful, many are known sources of spyware, advertising popups, web tracking or diverting, or other annoying and possibly unsafe functions. Using a traditional red for bad, green for good set of icons, the user can easily control which BHOs are loaded into Internet Explorer. An “IE Tweak” utility allows the user to customize Internet Explorer and provide additional protection against browser hijackers. Browsers use a “Hosts File” to convert commonly used internet URL names into more efficient IP addresses (a series of numbers such as 123.45.678.9). Some hijackers invade the hosts file and enter fraudulent data to redirect the browser to scam or criminal websites used for identity theft and other negative purposes. The Spybot “Host Files” utility allows the user to easily manage the hosts file, and determine if unwanted browser hijacks have taken place. Spybot has a lengthy list of hundreds of known scam and identity theft sites which can be added to the computer’s hosts file, mostly pointing to the internet dead end address of 127.0.0.1.
When I asked my first caller with the slow and sluggish computer if he had Spybot installed, he told me that yes he did, and that it had been recently updated. I instructed him to open Spybot, and click on MODE – ADVANCED – TOOLS. I then asked him to click on what may among the most useful utilities to improve performance, “System Startup”. He followed my prompting, and dutifully informed me that there were many checked entries shown in his startup, and that they were mostly highlighted in red, yellow, or green. He asked what he should do. I explained that items in red were often viruses, worms, Trojans, spyware, or other types of malware and should be unchecked at a minimum, or preferably deleted. Green items were recognized as safe, and should be left alone. Yellow items were personal choice, and could be left checked (loaded at startup) or unchecked at will. Items not highlighted may be system utilities or items unknown to Spybot. The caller asked how he would know what the cryptic descriptions meant, and I told him to click on the two triangular arrows on the right edge of the window, and a sliding partition would open. Clicking on an entry would display details of the startup item, including a description of the item, its source, and function. This is from the comprehensive startup list maintained by Paul Collins at http://www.sysinfo.org, which contains tens of thousands of searchable and categorized entries commonly used by people who utilize Microsoft’s “MSCONFIG” command to manually control startup functions. This database is integrated into Spybot, and is concurrently updated periodically as Spybot is updated.
The caller deleted the items in red, and decided to uncheck most of the yellow items after deciding that he did not need them loaded at boot. He left the green and white items alone. As directed he rebooted his computer. Eureka! It booted much faster, and programs loaded faster. There were far fewer icons in the taskbar by his clock. His software conflicts ceased. He called back and told me that when he went to Start-Turn Off Computer that the computer shut down much faster. The System Startup feature built into Spybot solved his problems. Minutes later another caller said that he had similar problems, and I recommended Spybot to him, as well as to the third caller. Both were instructed to download it, install it, update it, and run it. I then told them separately to click on Mode – Advanced – Tools – System Startup and delete the reds, decide on the yellows, and leave the greens alone. I tell most callers to call me back and let me know how it works; these two both had an epiphany and marveled at the simple solution to their vexing problems. Spybot, that well known anti-spyware program, provided them with other less known but very useful utilities, all for free. All three callers were very satisfied with what Spybot did for them.
I have used Spybot for years, and have frequently promoted it on my show. While the software is totally free to download and use, I personally make periodic voluntary online contributions to support Spybot, and encourage others to do likewise. In the years that I have used Spybot, I have only had one minor problem with it, and that was a documented conflict between Spybot’s Immunize function and the anti-spyware function built into Trend Micro’s Internet Security Suite 2007. Turning off Immunize instantly resolved the problem in this case.
I recommend that all PC users download Spybot and scan their computers for spyware and other malware, and then use the startup manager and other utilities to improve performance and safety. For the money (free), you will not find a better deal.Click here to return to top