(Part 2 of a three-part series. See Parts 1 and 3.)

If you think viruses, worms and spam are a problem, what you’re about to read is genuinely frightening. There’s high probability that every time you click on a Web site, send an e-mail or provide information through secure Web sites someone is watching what you are doing.

Last week’s column looked at seven strategies to protect yourself from viruses, worms and spam. Today’s column looks at a much more serious problem that can cause extraordinary problems for real estate professionals.

Fortunately, I have never had my hard drive crash nor have I had a virus since “Happy 99.” For the last eight weeks, however, every time I opened my browser an irritating ad from “Microsoft Internet Explorer” would pop up in spite of two programs that were supposed to be blocking pop-ups. If I visited multiple sites, a new ad would pop up at each new URL I visited. The problem slowed my computer down tremendously and caused a host of problems loading legitimate Web sites. I asked a number of experts and no one seemed to have an explanation. Fortunately, I received my ISP’s weekly newsletter and they had a new program to test for spyware. When I ran the program, I had 22 pieces of spyware on my computer. I was absolutely floored, since I am vigilant about running my virus protection and have the full-blown Norton Internet Security Package as well. What’s particularly alarming is even though I removed all 22 pieces, an additional one or two pieces seem to magically appear each day.

“Spyware” literally installs itself on your computer, without your knowledge or consent. Also, once these programs are installed, it may be difficult to uninstall them. Spyware systems can alter your operating system and seriously hamper your computer’s performance. Making matters worse, when you check the “agree to terms” before downloading certain files from the Internet, the company’s agreement may contain an embedded spyware consent clause. Since virtually no one reads these agreements, the spyware consent clause goes unnoticed.

Some spyware is legitimate. For example, I loaded Alexa on my computer and its “spyware” monitors which Web sites I visit as part of their ranking program. Other uses are much more insidious.

According to a recent article in Inman News, spyware falls into three different categories. The first category is used primarily for advertising. The spyware provides ads based upon the user’s interests. Alexa, which is owned by Amazon, was sued for selling this information to advertisers. Since the lawsuit, Alexa no longer does this, but many other companies do. A second and more dangerous type of spyware collects personal information, such as names and e-mail addresses. The company that collects this data sells it to other vendors. The third category is particularly troubling since this spyware extracts passwords, pin codes and other confidential data. This, in turn, can lead to identity theft or a host of other problems. What makes this so serious for Realtors is we often have personal information about our clientele stored in our computers. It’s bad enough if our competitors obtain this information. It is an agent’s worst nightmare, however, if this information ends up in the hands of a criminal.

The problem I was having with my computer was due to spyware’s first cousin–adware. Like spyware, it attached itself to my computer without my knowledge, slowed down my machine’s performance, and was difficult to eliminate. In this case, I was aware of the adware because of the pop-ups.

What can you do to eliminate these programs from your computer? Earthlink’s Total Access Program has a free application that removes spyware and adware programs from your machine. When I was online recently with Dell customer support, they recommended AdAware and Spybot Search and Destroy. Two other programs are BPS Spyware/Adware Remover and Spyware Eliminator.

If you haven’t addressed this extraordinary threat to your online security, you need to take action today to correct this very serious issue. For more tips on dealing with threats to your “satanic machine,” see next week’s RealClues, “Protecting Your Computer and Your Business Part 3: Are Your Cookies Leaving You Vulnerable to Peeping Toms?”  

Bernice Ross is an owner of Realestatecoach.com and can be reached at bernice@realestatecoach.com.  

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