Anti-spyware software helps users combat an ever-growing number of programs designed to gather system information from an infected computer and send it back to advertisers -- or worse, keyloggers looking to steal passwords and other sensitive data. Gartner.com security analyst John Pescatore writes, "Spyware and phishing are actually bigger problems for consumers than viruses." Viruses cause more severe damage than spyware, but spyware is far more prevalent. An accumulation of hundreds of spyware applets, which is not uncommon, is as crippling as a virus, and the worst types of spyware can contribute to identity theft.
Fake anti-spyware, known as scareware, is also a significant issue. These are spyware programs that masquerade as anti-spyware. Even fake anti-spyware reviews are a problem. We found plenty of sponsored reviews. For that reason, we consulted only reputable review sources in our research.
Most stand-alone antivirus programs also defend against spyware, as do Internet security suites that bundle together antivirus and anti-spyware capabilities along with spam filters and a firewall. Our antivirus and Internet security software reports contain more information about the best choices among those types of programs.
Experts say the best commercial anti-spyware program is PC Tools Spyware Doctor 9 (*Est. $30). Spyware Doctor 9 uses proactive, reactive and automatic protection to block spyware, adware, unwanted cookies and automatic downloads. Scan times are speedy, reviewers say, and the program is very effective at finding and removing spyware, although it stumbles a bit removing rootkits in PCMag.com's testing. Both on-demand and scheduled scans are supported, in addition to real-time protection. The Site Guard functionality alerts you to any suspicious websites or unsafe downloads from the web, email or chat networks. For technical support, users have access to support personnel via phone, email or web chat. Spyware Doctor also comes bundled with antivirus software in Spyware Doctor with AntiVirus 2011 (*Est. $40), which earns a very good rating from PCMag.com, but be aware that Spyware Doctor's antivirus isn't as effective as its anti-spyware capabilities.
Despite not having seen a major upgrade since 2007, Stopzilla 5.0 (*Est. $40) manages to snag second place in TopTenReviews.com's list of the top ten anti-spyware programs. Editors praise the software's spyware-removal performance and call it "a powerful antispyware product," but they note that Stopzilla can slow down your computer. While Stopzilla sports a strong overall rating at Download.com, several users note that the trial version found hundreds (and in some cases, thousands) of supposedly infected files on their system and prompted them to buy the full version to remove the offenders -- even though alternate programs found far fewer infections after scanning.
Webroot's Spy Sweeper earned high anti-spyware honors in past years, but it has now been rolled into Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus 2012, which earns an Editors' Choice award from PCMag.com. It also was named one of the Best Reviewed products in our antivirus report; head over there for full details about the program. Experts call Webroot Secure Anywhere Antivirus 2012 speedy and effective, and say that it has a remarkably low impact on computer performance.
If you want to buy a full-fledged Internet security suite, reviewers say Norton Internet Security 2012 (*Est. $70) is among the best in removing malware and spyware, although the program is prone to reporting a high number of false positives. NotebookReview.com had trouble even running its spyware detection tests as Norton refused to let the exploits download whatsoever. The suite also gets very high marks for its robust firewall and streamlined, user-friendly interface. You can read more about it in our Internet security software report.
Several highly regarded, free anti-spyware programs are available, and reviews suggest using one or more of these to supplement paid versions of Spy Sweeper or Spyware Doctor. All the free programs have limited functionality, however, so they aren't the best choice as your primary anti-spyware defense.
Ad-Aware Free Internet Security 9.5 (Free) gets the best reviews among free anti-spyware software, including an "Excellent" rating from Download.com and an Editors' Choice award from PCMag.com. While Ad-Aware is best known for its anti-spyware technology, the current version also includes antivirus software, so it detects viruses, spyware, Trojans, keyloggers, rootkits and more. Ad-Aware can also get rid of cookies and traces of your browsing activity with its browser track sweeper function. This free software offers basic real-time protection, so infected programs and files will be detected when you try to download or open them. However, reviewers say scan times are among the slowest around, and scheduled scans or scans of network drives aren't supported in the free version. While Ad-Aware earns high marks for spyware removal and blocking, critics say its antivirus chops aren't quite as robust and that there are better solutions -- including free programs. See our report on antivirus software for some suggestions.
Experts say they turn to Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware Free 1.51 when their primary anti-malware program can't remove a particularly stubborn bug. The program earns a 4 (out of 5) star rating from PCMag.com and a 4.5 (out of 5) score from Download.com. The free version of Malwarebytes doesn't offer real-time protection, has trouble detecting some rootkits, and doesn't find many of the threats PCMag.com's Neil Rubenking throws at it, but the program's scan times are fast, and it's very, very effective at removing threats it does find
Spyware Terminator is another popular free solution. The software detects and removes spyware with automatic updates, real-time protection and user-scheduled scans. It also includes ClamAV antivirus for protection against additional threats. Like most free anti-spyware software, Spyware Terminator doesn't include phone support, so you're stuck with email or the user forums for help. According to reviews, Spyware Terminator has an easy-to-use interface but still offers enough customization for advanced users. Users of that site gripe about large, near-constant pop-up advertisements enticing you to upgrade to the premium version, however.
We found three especially useful sources of information for selecting anti-spyware software: PCMag.com, Download.com and TopTenReviews.com. Each offers detailed discussion and numerical ratings of the major anti-spyware programs, although each sometimes covers slightly outdated versions of some products. Download.com also offers numerous user reviews, although coverage of the newer versions is lumped together with reviews of older offerings. The reviews at Softonic.com are brief, but its bullet-lists of pros and cons for each program are helpful. NotebookReview.com supplements PCMag.com's coverage of Norton Internet Security with a thorough, testing-based review that includes a spyware protection test.