Choosing anti-spyware software

Spyware detection and removal are the most important considerations when selecting an anti-spyware program. Compatibility with other security programs is also critical. Here are some additional things to consider:

  • Look for real-time blocking. This stops spyware before it downloads. It is far easier to prevent spyware from installing in the first place than to clean out an infected system after the fact.
  • Automatic scan scheduling is a plus. This allows you to set the day and time for spyware scans. Alternatively, you can instruct the software to run scans at start-up or shutdown.
  • Consider support. Given the reported difficulties some users have in getting anti-spyware utilities to upgrade cleanly or play nicely with other applications -- particularly security applications -- good product support including online help, forums, email support and free telephone support can be crucial.
  • Automatic spyware definition updates help keep your protection current. Some free tools require manual updates.
  • Restoration/rollback capability helps avoid mistakes. When clearing out infections, accidently deleting or quarantining legitimate applications or files is a common error. With this feature, components can be restored from quarantine so that the application will work again.

Avoiding spyware in the first place

Experts say that a little bit of defensive computing can go a long way in helping you avoid spyware in the first place. Don't click inside pop-up windows, and always close them by using the "X" in the corner. If this does not work, close your browser and then reopen it. Deleting unsolicited email messages without opening them will protect against most malware spreading through email. Read the end-user license agreement before you install software. When you click "I agree," you may be agreeing to install spyware with the software. Cookies can hold personal profiles and Internet browsing tracks. You can clear the cache (downloaded cookies) in virtually every current web browser but before you do, make sure you have your passwords handy, as you'll need to reenter them. Only download executable (*.exe) files from known and trustworthy websites.

Keep your operating system updated with the latest security patches and service packs. Use Microsoft's automatic updates for greater security. In Internet Explorer, make sure your security level is set to medium or higher. Lower settings allow spyware to enter your system's memory. Set your browser to deny installing Active X controls without asking permission. In Firefox, ask the browser to warn you when a site tries to install add-ons and have it block known questionable sites.

Regularly back up your system, so you can reinstall your files in case a spyware invasion or crash forces you to reinstall your operating system. Be prepared with emergency disks or other system-restoration tools. See our report on online backup systems for options.

Some spyware masquerades as legitimate anti-spyware or antivirus tools, often known as scareware. Experts say you should never click on a pop-up or email link that offers to scan your computer for viruses or spyware. Don't trust advertisements that claim your computer is already infected with malware or spyware. In addition, you should only download anti-spyware software from a reputable company.

Do Mac users need anti-spyware software?

Experts disagree about the need for anti-spyware software on Macintosh and Linux systems. The vast majority of spyware and adware is written to compromise Windows computers, but that doesn't mean that Mac computers are immune. ZDNet.com's Ed Bott estimates that the widely publicized MacDefender scareware exploit infected an estimated 60,000 to 125,000 Mac users in the spring of 2011.

Even so, Mac and Linux operating systems aren't targeted as often as Windows PCs, so there are few reviews available for anti-spyware software compatible with these systems. One option is an Internet security suite, which will protect against various types of malware, including spyware. Internet security suites also include firewalls, identity theft protections, parental controls and antivirus software. There are several Mac-based Internet security suites, but few attract many reviews. You can read more about Mac security options in our Internet security software report. There's also MacScan 2.9 (*Est. $40), a stand-alone anti-spyware program for Macintosh systems. No reviewers cover the most recent version, but older versions were found to be customizable and easy to use, if a bit slow during scans.

Linux users can find free programs through Linux support vendors, user groups and bulletin boards. The University of Virginia offers helpful information in the article "UNIX/Linux Security Best Practices."

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