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Originally published Monday, January 2, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Small office / Home office

Spyware's bad; free software to fight it is good

Do you have to spend $80 to $100 on security software with that new computer? No. Pick a Macintosh or Linux computer, and you're pretty...

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service

Do you have to spend $80 to $100 on security software with that new computer?

No. Pick a Macintosh or Linux computer, and you're pretty well protected from Internet threats such as viruses and spyware.

Even if you use Windows, simply refusing to open e-mail attachments and Web-browsing only with Firefox or Opera instead of Internet Explorer will keep you reasonably safe.

It's also a good idea never to download and install "free" games, toolbars or other software goodies unless you know they're safe.

So what if you want to stick with Windows with Internet Explorer? You don't have to buy security software; some of the best is free. AVG (http://free.grisoft.com) is my favorite free antivirus program.

Using that, you're ready to protect against spyware — programs that install on your computer without your full knowledge or permission.

Most install when you download and install a free "toolbar," game, porn, or kids program. (I hear of parents who have a real problem after kids have used their PCs.)

It's often in the fine print of the "License Agreement" that most just click "OK" on. A few particularly evil sneaks install when you visit the wrong Web site or download a free "anti-spyware" tool advertised in spam e-mail. That's right: anti-spyware that's actually spyware.

Spyware is bad. It reports on your Web viewing and buying habits to advertisers, digs through your computer to see what programs you have, records and passes your account numbers and passwords to crooks, switches your Web home page to some porn site, pops up windows over and over with pushy ads, dials expensive long-distance phone numbers on your modem without permission, or several of the above.

Your computer may have hundreds of separate spyware programs. The result can be a slower computer, crashing computer, lost money, and lost privacy.

To fight back, get Ad-Aware SE Personal Edition. Yes, I know Microsoft offers a spyware fighter, but I don't trust it like the well-tested Ad-Aware.

Go to the www.lavasoft.com Web page. On the left side, from the list of Products, click on Ad-Aware Personal. On the page that appears, click the red "Download now" button.

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On the next page that appears, click the green "Download now" button. (So many steps!?). Within about 10 seconds you should see a small window asking if you want to "Save" to disk. OK, you do. This should take about 10 minutes with a dial-up connection, only seconds with broadband.

Then find the Ad-Aware file on your hard drive, where you saved it, and double-click on it. That will start installation.

Follow the directions on screen. If you have trouble, look to the download page that had the green button. There are some helpful tutorials there (you can't call for free tech support with this free program).

Spyware is evolving all the time, trying to elude the anti-spyware tools. So you should keep Ad-Aware up to date (use the options in the program) with regular news about the latest bad guys.

And you should add another spyware fighter as a partner with Ad-Aware. (Using more than one firewall or anti-virus program is a bad idea. Using more than one anti-spyware tool is generally a good idea.)

Spybot is the best free partner. Go to http://safer-networking.org.

Regularly running, and keeping up-to-date, Ad-Aware and Spybot will do a decent job of keeping the spies out of your computer house.

There are trickier spyware problems they can't solve. You'll need some real guru help for that.

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