Malware are those nasty little interruptions that can plague your internet browsing experience and eventually slow down and disrupt your entire computer. If you've ever worked on a badly infected computer, you'll know what I mean – little advertisements that pop-up without warning, extra icons appearing on your desktop leading to pornographic or gambling related sites, browser diversions, and most common of all, changes to your selected home page, so that instead of going to www.msn.com (the default home page for Internet Explorer) or your ISP's home page, you are instead diverted to sites filled with advertising, usually for mortgages, bonds, Viagra, travel and gambling. If the top part of your Internet Explorer window is filled with links and buttons that are unfamiliar to you, and which lead you to other sites you have no wish to go to, or if your computer is substantially slower online than it used to be (and your antivirus software is up to date) then you have adware and spyware on your computer.

Technically, malware is divided into two categories – Adware, which simply displays adverts on your computer, and redirects you to certain sites, and Spyware, which is more malicious in nature, watching your browsing habits and reporting back to marketing companies without your permission. However, the line between the two is blurred, and the phrase malware applies to both of them. Malware most often infects your computer through certain websites – some junk emails (which are handled the same way as webpages through Outlook and Outlook Express) infect your computer, while other webpages affect you simply by looking at them, or by clicking Yes on a dialog box that pops up when you visit a certain page. Internet Explorer and Outlook Express are most vulnerable to this kind of attack, partly because Internet Explorer is so popular (and insecure), but mostly because Internet Explorer is so tied in with the rest of the Windows operating system that any compromise of Internet Explorer is automatically counted as a compromise of Windows itself. It is a form of hacking, although in this case it is completely automated.

To combat this problem, a host of different programs have appeared that are of greater or lesser use. The two most common solutions are the freeware programs Ad-Aware and SpyBot, however, Spyware Guard and Spyware Stormer are other choices. Some of these programs are free for personal use - an important note to remember is that in the software world, price does not necessarily correlate with results - in a recent roundup, SpyBot was found to be the most effective program for removing malware. Some antivirus vendors have also taken to including malware in their virus databases, so that malware is picked up along with viruses. McAfee was one of the first vendors to do so, but Norton Antivirus and others have followed. Microsoft has also introduced their own free spyware removal program - however, this program is often disabled by spyware, just as Norton Antivirus is often disabled by viruses. Also bear in mind that some malware programs, such as Ada-ware (note the similarity to Ad-Aware) pose as malware removal programs, so be sure to thoroughly review any malware removal program you plan on using.

However, these removal programs are a reactive solution - a proactive solution would be to stop the malware from infecting your computer in the first place. The most effective way to do this is to cut out the means by which malware infects your computer. Firefox is an alternative browser to Internet Explorer with lots of great features, including tabbed browsing (so that you don't need to open multiple windows for different webpages), extra security features, better standards support and faster loading times. Firefox is available for free at http://www.getfirefox.com. A degree of care with emails is also recommended - if you receive an email from someone you do not know, do not open any attachments on it, but rather delete it. Keeping your version of Windows up to date is also highly recommended, as this helps block up security holes that malware exploits. This is handled automatically for you through http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com. While this is extremely slow over a dial-up connection (although Microsoft has introduced a new update system that helps dial-up users substantially), broadband users should be able to do this monthly. Please remember that many computers have problems with Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, and a complete backup of your system should be done before installing this. Weekly scans with Ad-Aware and Spybot (available from http://www.lavasoft.com and http://www.spybot.com respectively) are also highly recommended. While this may seem like extra effort, these programs are really all very easy to use, and you'll reap the rewards with a faster, cleaner computer.

This writeup only applies to Windows computers, principally those running Windows 2000 or Windows XP. Linux and Apple computers are normally not targeted by malware, and may be worth looking into if you are in the market for a new computer.

Please also note that this information is time-sensitive, given the ever-changing nature of the internet. I will try to keep this information up to date, but as always, before installing any software on your computer, it is advisable to research it first.

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