For several months, the most frequent complaint from my clients concerns programs surreptitiously installed on their computers that have hijacked their browser home page, taken over the browser’s search functions, or that are displaying incessant popup windows.

I encourage you to visit the web sites linked below and read the background information about adware, spyware, and browser hijacking. It will make you smarter about how these things got onto your computer, and it will make you want to throw the people doing this to us into the burning pits of hell.

I’m going to suggest a new rule of paranoid computing, made necessary by this onslaught.

If you’re online and any new window appears on your screen asking you to do something, you should always say no.

The window might say, “You must install (__________) to view this page.” It might say, “Would you like to install (cool sounding free utility)?” It might say, “Your computer is broadcasting your IP address!” It might say, “Click here to stop popups!”

Don’t do it. Don’t do it to play games. Don’t do it to get (weather/traffic/earthquakes) from a little icon on the task bar. Don’t do it to play a type of streaming media that your system doesn’t recognize. Don’t click OK!

There are a handful of exceptions.

Microsoft’s bubble by the clock that says “New updates are ready to install.” When you click on it, a distinctively Microsoft window will appear in the middle of the screen and assist you in installing security updates to Windows. They’re safe to install.

Adobe Acrobat reader is safe.

Shockwave and Flash plugins are safe, to the best of my knowledge.

Instant messaging programs are safe.

If you think you have adware on your system, there are two basic tools for removing it. In my experience, they are safe and easy to run. I’ve never had one cause problems, only fix them. DISCLAIMER: I don’t guarantee anything! Don’t blame me!

AD-AWARE Ad-Aware is free software that scans your system and removes most adware and spyware. Always use a newly downloaded version – it relies on updated definitions in the same way as antivirus software. Let it scan your system with the default choices, and let it remove whatever it finds. Click here for Ad-Aware’s web site, and click here to download it. (Choose to “Open” the downloaded file and it will run the installer. When it’s done, the Ad-Aware icon will be on your desktop.)

There are other programs for removing adware and spyware – Spybot has a good reputation for power users. But Spybot and some of the others can occasionally identify something that is actually required by your system, causing problems if you remove it unknowingly. Ad-Aware’s recommendations have always been safe, in my experience.

CWSHREDDER There is a new method of infecting a system that isn’t addressed by Ad-Aware. This page describes the “CoolWebSearch” hijack and the CWShredder tool to remove all the variations of this technique. Click here to download the program – you can open it straight from this link.

Finally, if you don’t already have a popup blocker, install the Google toolbar, which includes basic popup blocking in addition to being generally cool. After it’s installed, remember to hold down Ctrl to permit display of a popup that you want.

Good luck!

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