Internet Safety Tips: Combat Spam, Spyware and Phishing


Software that collects information about a user without the user's knowledge or consent which can lead to identity theft. Also, software that modifies the operation of a user's computer without the user's knowledge or consent. Typical kinds of spyware include keyloggers, which send a list to a third party of the keys that a user pressed, and adware, which displays to the user advertisements selected by the adware's owner.

Statistics on Spyware

(Last updated: March 2007)

  • Spyware is now the second largest security concern for organizations. (Sophos Security Threat Report 2007)

  • In a recent study conducted by the AOL/National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA), it was determined that homes with children were more likely to have spyware or adware on the computer. In fact, more than two-thirds (69%) of homes with children under the age of 18 had spyware/adware versus 58% of households without children. (2005 AOL/NCSA Online Safety Study)

  • Nine out of ten internet users say they have adjusted their online behaviour out of fear of falling victim to software intrusions. (Source: Fox, Susannah. Spyware. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project, July 6, 2005.)

  • Although American consumers invested more than $2.6 billion in protection software over the past two years, they still spent more than $9 billion for computer repairs, parts, and replacements to solve problems caused by viruses and spyware. (Consumer Reports State of the Net survey of online consumers, 2005)

Why is Spyware Harmful to You and Your Computer?

Spyware Watch states that the "spyware agent" on your computer may be performing the following tasks:

  • Malware, which can modify your computer's system settings and perform tasks on your computer that are undesirable;
  • Browser hijackers, which will redirect your browser to other websites that you would not normally visit;
  • Dialer agents, which actually dial up a service that you will be billed for;
  • Trojan horses, which perform unwanted tasks on your computer, redirecting you to undesirable websites and allowing others access to your computer to do whatever damage they please;
  • The collectware agent, which will collect information about you and all of your surfing habits; and
  • Adware, which can be used to log your personal information, such as your name, address, age, passwords, email addresses, web surfing history, online purchases, and any information you type into a form, such as credit card numbers.

Key Indicators of Spyware

According to OnGuard Online, the following features are often clues that your computer has been infected by spyware:

  • Barrage of pop-up ads,
  • Hijacked browser - that is, a browser that takes you to sites other than those you type into the address box;
  • A sudden or repeated change in your computer's Internet home page new and unexpected toolbars;
  • New and unexpected icons on the system tray at the bottom of your computer screen;
  • Keys that don't work (for example, the "Tab" key that might not work when you try to move to the next field in a Web form),
  • Random error messages; and
  • Sluggish or downright slow performance when opening programs or saving files.

Tips to Lower Your Risk of Spyware Infections

The Anti-Spyware Coalition offers the following safety tips for fighting spyware:

  • Keep security on your computer up to date.

    • Update security patches:
      Many malicious spyware developers exploit known security holes in essential software, such as operating systems and browsers. Update essential software frequently. Automate the process if your vendor offers the option.

    • Security and privacy settings in Internet browsers:
      Many Internet browsers have security and privacy settings that you can adjust to determine how much-or how little-information you are willing to accept from a website. Check the documentation or help file on your Internet browser to determine how to adjust these settings to appropriate levels. See for detailed instructions.

  • Download programs only from websites you trust.

    • If you are not sure whether to trust a program you are considering downloading, ask a knowledgeable friend or enter the name of the program into your favorite search engine to see if anyone else has reported that it contains spyware or other potentially unwanted technologies.

    • Look carefully at the address of the site you are visiting to make sure it is not an obvious spoof.

    • Be particularly suspicious of programs you see advertised on unrelated Web sites. If a maker of a screensaver, "smiley" inserter, or other program heavily promotes its purportedly-free product, the product may include extra software you do not want.

  • Beware the fine print: Read all security warnings, license agreements, privacy statements, and "opt-in" notices with any software you download.

    • Whenever you install something on your computer, make sure you carefully read all disclosures, including the license agreement and privacy statement. Sometimes important information such as aggressive installs or the inclusion of unwanted software in a given software installation is documented, but it may be found only in the EULA. The fine print may be the only place consumers can find notice of potentially unwanted technologies. Unfortunately, careful consumers must read all the fine print.

    • When given the choice of opting into something, make sure you understand fully to what you are agreeing.

    • If you have doubts about the legitimacy of the software, do not install it, or go to a trusted source to find more information about the software. To be safe, you should never install software if you are uncertain about it.

  • Don't be tricked into clicking: You don't have to click "OK," "Agree," or "Cancel" to close a window.

    • If you want to close a window or dialog box, consider the options provided by your operating system or Web browser, such as closing the window with the 'x' mark in the upper corner or typing Alt+F4 in Microsoft Windows.

    • Pay attention when closing windows; some dialog boxes may have a prominent statement that says, "Click here to close window," then in less prominent text adds, "and install software."

  • Be especially careful with certain types of "free" programs.

    • Many file sharing applications are bundled with other, potentially unwanted software.
    • Similarly, screen savers, cursor enhancements, wallpaper bundles, "smiley" inserters and any other software promoted aggressively often include extra software you did not request and aren't expecting. Be sure you clearly understand all of the software packaged with those programs.

  • Use available tools to detect and delete spyware.

    • There are a number of security tools available from a variety of vendors that can help you identify spyware, stop the installation of it on your PC, and/or remove it.

    • Anti-spyware and Anti-virus software: There are a number of programs (available both free and for a fee) from reputable vendors that can help detect spyware, prevent spyware from being installed on your PC, and/or remove spyware if it is installed. (Some programs can be removed through "Add/Remove programs" or other standard operating system features.) Note that some software that claims to be an anti-spyware tool is actually adware or other potentially unwanted software in disguise. For this reason, you should read reviews to be sure any anti-spyware software you download is from a reputable publisher.

    • Personal firewall: Installing and using a firewall provides a helpful defense against remote installation of spyware by hackers.