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Monday, October 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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E-conomy / Paul Andrews
Geek Squad has hands full with malware


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About halfway through the Geek Squad's "cleansing" of Britta Smith's Windows laptop, it dawned on me that we're almost back to the bad old days of early personal computing.

Before the point-and-click interfaces of Apple's Macintosh and then Microsoft Windows made computing easier, the average user felt paralyzed by the bewildering thicket of DOS prompts, tree directories and text commands. Just calling up an application practically required learning a second language.

Britta Smith, a University of Washington junior from Darrington majoring in communications and history, is perfectly capable of operating a PC. The problem is, her computer had turned into a hairball of malware: spyware, pop-ups, pop-unders, adware and so on. It had become an Alice in Wonderland of digital treachery, and she didn't know how to climb out of the rabbit hole.

It's a common theme for Windows users. An Idaho office manager told me spyware had become her company's No. 1 maintenance problem. A University District shop owner showed how every time he started his office PC, the screen would explode with pop-ups.

After my nephew used my daughter's home PC, it took her three weeks and several reformats to remove all the junk on her hard drive.

It's not surprising the Geek Squad has its hands full. Through its affiliation with the Best Buy chain, the computer-support task force roams the Puget Sound region and other areas of the country in distinctly decorated black-and-white VW bugs, helping distressed users regain control of their machines.

Smith's "agent" was genial 22-year-old Shoreline native Joe Unsell.

Some clients are vexed by wireless networks. Before Best Buy bought the Geek Squad two years ago, Unsell said, it took returns on more than two-thirds of wireless routers it sold. Most times, they were simply too hard for buyers to set up.

Some people want help learning new applications. Others have never set up their own PC.

One Geek Squad client, a building subcontractor, told me, "I could tear down this apartment complex and rebuild it, but when it comes to computers I'm a helpless idiot."

By far, the majority of Geek Squad "rehabs" involve security, Unsell said. But here's the epiphany that Unsell's work on Smith's PC provided.
 
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Because anti-virus software has become de facto on Windows machines, and because the Internet infrastructure is doing a better job of screening spam, worms and potentially infected files, viruses are under much better control. Unsell found no viruses on Smith's laptop.

Instead, the malware nemesis rages on. Using Spybot and Ad-Aware, two free downloadable programs, Unsell wound up "quarantining" nearly 600 misbehaving software objects (programs, files, cookies and so on) on Smith's computer.

He had to reboot and scan Smith's system four times to rid it entirely of malware (which often revives on startup). The whole process took an hour and a half. "That's bad, but pretty common," Unsell said.

One nightmarish hard disk took him eight hours to clean up. The average user can spend days rehabilitating a hard drive.

The Geek Squad also uses Stinger and Kazaabegone (after the file-sharing program that hosts malware like a petri dish). Another recommended strategy is to switch browsers from Internet Explorer to Mozilla Firefox.

Perhaps in acknowledgement of the latter's effectiveness, Bill Gates recently advised that Microsoft will offer software to block malware.

Much of this you can do yourself if you have time and the inclination. If not, there's always the Geek Squad (800-433-5778 or geeksquad.com). Fees start at $129 for a typical installation and $159 for a security overhaul.

A visit comes with a 30-day guarantee. Most of the time, a recalled agent can be on site, day or night, within half an hour, Unsell said. The goal, though, is to get clients to be self-sufficient.

Two weeks after Unsell's visit, Smith told me her PC was still malware-free.

"What I like about what I do comes in teaching people to handle things themselves — and to like technology," Unsell said.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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