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ScumWare!

"It was as if the lid had been pulled off something dark and writhing:
a place of derangement and fury and utter viciousness . . . ."


--Neverwhere,
Neil Gaiman


What Is "ScumWare"?

"ScumWare" is the common name for stealth programs that reside on your computer and, without your knowledge, materially change what happens when you cruise the internet (it is also sometimes called "spyware"). Don't assume that your computer "couldn't" be infected: that's what most victims think. (When they think about it at all.)

Things scumware can do and often does:

  • Change the appearance of web pages you look at, so that those pages are different, possibly very different, from what the person or institution providing the real page ever intended (or dreamt of). The changes can be in more than just appearance: scumware can, and almost always does, put links on the page that the real page designer did not, and which are evil commercial thievery or worse.

  • "Hijack" internet orders you may place, giving--for example--credit for the sale to a site very different from the one that you thought you were ordering through.

  • Track your computer use and secretly report that use back to marketers.

  • Collect personal data you enter when filling in forms on the Web--and send that data to criminals who resell it or use it for identity theft.

  • Pop up ads (often multiple ads) over your screen--sometimes even when you aren't using your browser.

  • Record your email or chat sessions with boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, children, or anyone, and send them to someone else.

  • Insert its own hyperlinks into a user's view of a web page under the real ones, so as to reroute page links to new, unauthorized destinations: imagine, for example, clicking a link for one airline and being taken to another airline's pages; or imagine a child clicking a link about some pop idol only to be taken to a pornography site.

  • Redirect you to a some sponsor's Web site.

As the Associates Programs Newsletter has observed (addressing itself to web-page designers)--

TopText [one notorious piece of ScumWare], like Microsoft's widely denounced SmartTags, works through your browser. It modifies your web page, highlighting in yellow all the keywords which eZula [the scumware maker] has sold. Advertisers pay per click for the keywords.

What it's doing is inserting advertisers' hyperlinks in your pages. For example, if you have used the phrase "car loan" on a web page, TopText could turn that phrase into a hyperlink which your visitors [can] click on . . . .

Or as Danny Sullivan of the respected SearchEngineWatch put it in an excellent article on the subect (which has links to yet other relevant articles)--

As a result, potentially Coke could advertise so that any time cola appeared on the Pepsi site, the word would have a hyperlink leading back to the Coke site. Similarly, Ford could advertise so that the word car on any pages across the web--including those at the General Motors web site--would link to Ford.

It doesn't matter whether the site is mine or that of FBI, the White House, or a children's charity: advertisers' links can be, and are being, added to those pages: sites carefully designed to be suitable for children could appear in your computer overlaid with links to pornography; religious charity sites could be overlaid with adds for on-line casinos. There is no limit to the possibilities. Nor is there any limit to the greed and depravity of the scum behind scumware.

What brought scumware to my attention was an Amazon Affiliates discussion board, from which I found that, among other things, scumware can and does "hijack" orders to Amazon and other such places: if, for example, you think you're ordering a book from Amazon through this site, but have any one of several kinds of scumware on your computer, that scumware will alter your order so that the scumware maker (or anyone to whom he has peddled the privilege) gets credited--and hence paid--by Amazon for the order, not me (or whomever else you place any such orders through--and, as I said, that is not just orders to Amazon but to any business that has "affiliates", which a very great many on-line sellers do). One site operator reported that, after installing detection software, he found that roughly ten percent of all his visitors had scumware running on their systems. More recent reports suggest much higher numbers, perhaps one in five users, or even more: the stuff spreads like the vicious weed it is.


How Could My Computer Be Infected?

Easily. ScumWare is, pretty obviously, not distributed as what it really is. It gets onto computers by piggybacking on other, more or less desireable software--which is almost always free, the entire purpose of the nominally helpful software being to act as a "Trojan Horse" for getting the scumware onto your computer. Little "helper" programs you can get for free--show the local temperature, or set your computer's clock, or any such small and apparently useful toy--are common vehicles for scumware; the host program does whatever trivial taks it claims, but its real reason for being is to carry in the scumware. (And it's legal: you almost always have to click something that says, deep into some microscopic-pitch, tediously long and confusing legalese jargon, that you okay all the associated programs for your computer.)

An especial source of scumware infection is "file-sharing utilities" or "peer-to-peer" software. Nowadays, these things pop up (and disappear) so fast that it is hard to keep a single list, but even the worst offenders are known to have been downloaded by many millions of people, all of whom got the scumware with them--the scum who make scumware keep mutating, like the diseases they are, to stay ahead of public understanding of what they're really doing.

(Remember: even if you personally have never downloaded any such stuff, if anyone else at all uses your computer--especially the kids in your family--they might well have downloaded infected software.)

Note that so far virtually all "malware" is designed to attack Windows-family operating systems; Linux- and Mac-based systems see few or no threats, though that may be changing. The reason is simple--Microsoft's dominance, especially on the vulnerable home-computer desktop: when the famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he ceaselessy robbed banks, he replied "That's where they keep the money." So a first step in protection, if it's possible for you, is to move from Windows to Linux or a Mac; other advantages would accrue from such a move, but that's another topic.

Where Can I Find Out More?

This page used to have a built-in spyware test, and links to sites that also offered online testing. Things have gone beyond that stage, and most experts recommend that if you are serious about protection, you use two or three software packages, since it seems no one package can any longer be counted on to find everything. There are several free packages, but you get what you pay for (or at least you don't get what you don't pay for), and while those freebies, especially if you use several, can be useful, the expert opinion suggests that you pop a little for a commercial program.

It is also no longer possible for me, a non-expert, to present a neat little list of software packages. The best I can do--besides just making you aware at all of the problem--is to give you a few pointers toward the expert sites. I cannot judge the accuracy or reliability of all these sites, but some are famously reputable; I have thus divided the list into the known and the unknown, but "unknown" only means unknown to me (I wouldn't include a site that looks shady, but, again, I'm not an expert). Here's the list(which is by no means exhaustive--it's just to get you started):

Or search Google right now for further "scumware" and "spyware" links.

But as anyone and everyone should know, as with true bodily diseases, the best cure is prevention, meaning taking care not to become infected in the first place: don't download and install any software you don't know a lot about (which means knowing more than that your buddies use it and it hasn't actually crashed their systems). That is elementary advice in any event, but, rather obviously, many millions ignore it, which is why viruses and worms and other such joys (in the same moral class as scumware) routinely succeed. (Look into the McAfee "Site Aware" software linked above--it can help you avoid known spyware-source sites, and McAfee is a long-established, reputable computer-security company.)

Don't be taken for a sucker--fight back!



This site is free of ScumWare!




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