Cookies may be bad for your waistline, but they can be an even worst disaster for your computer. If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to put your computer on a cookie diet.

I purchased a new computer a few months ago and it was constantly crashing. One of the problems was that the Palm 650 TREO software and Windows XP don’t like each other, and when these two conflict, your machine crashes. I was also running Norton AntiVirus, but because of all the problems I was experiencing, I was reluctant to install anything else. Big mistake. Even though I was removing my cookies regularly, the machine was still crashing and acting weird. The real culprit, much to my chagrin, turned out to be something that is even more intrusive than most cookies called adware.

To protect your computer and your clients, you must take steps to block cookies, spyware, and adware. Without this protection, Internet thieves can use your computer to broadcast spam from your machine. Worst yet, your e-mail list can actually be recipients of this unsolicited spam. Imagine, one of your best clients receives an e-mail from your address and it’s a link to a porn site or something that installs spyware on their machine. Taking a few simple steps can prevent this terrible scenario.

Step #1 :

Delete the cookies from your computer at least once a week. What’s a cookie? While the chocolate chip variety can add pounds to your body, computer “cookies” have the effect of slowing your computer’s rate of performance. A “cookie” is a computer code that recognizes your URL (your unique computer address) and allows a third party to monitor actions you take on your computer. Some “cookies” are actually quite helpful. For example, if you are making an airline reservation and give them your frequent flyer number, the airline’s “cookies” allow them to retrieve your present reservations, seat preferences, credit card numbers, and provide special offers based upon where you elect to travel. Real estate companies who allow visitors to search the Multiple Listing Service often use “cookies” as well. Once visitors enter in their e-mail address, the site “recognizes” them and “populates” the site with their previous search requests. Without “cookies,” visitors would have to enter this information each time they visited the site.

On the other hand, dangerous “cookies” are lurking in innocent-looking e-mails as well as millions of Web sites that you routinely visit. For example, if you visit an online news site, most attach a cookie each time you open a page on their sites. This means that if you are reading your news online, you can literally pick up hundreds of “cookies” each week. The same is also true for thousands of advertisers. What is even more insidious is how many spammers include “cookies” in their unsolicited e-mail. Once the “cookie” is on your computer, it can be used to create unwelcome pop-up ads, expose your machine to viruses, access personal information, as well as interfere with your computer’s other programs.

Unfortunately, the “internet security” and virus programs do not protect you from all cookies. For example, the Norton AntiVirus program warns you each time a Web site or e-mail attempts to add a cookie to your machine. Sadly, this program isn’t enough. When I installed Earthlink’s Total Access Program, I discovered that I was picking up 10 to 20 cookies per day. Deleting unwanted cookies can speed up your computer’s performance while protecting you from those who are interested in monitoring your computer’s activities. To remove these unwanted and potentially dangerous pieces of code from Windows, check the “help” on your computer system. In Windows XP, for example, the “cookie remover” is under “Network and Internet Connections.” Once you reach that page, click on “Internet Options” and the pop-up menu will have a check box that says, “Delete cookies.” Use this option at least once weekly.

Step #2:

Eliminate spyware. Spyware falls into three different categories. The first category is used primarily for advertising and provides ads based upon the user’s interests. A second and more dangerous type of spyware collects personal information such as names and e-mail addresses. The company who 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. There are a number of good spyware programs on the market. Three of these are Spybot Search and Destroy, Spyware/Adware Remover, and Spyware Eliminator.

Step #3:

Eliminate adware. Even with my Earthlink spyware in place, my old laptop still had 158 pieces of adware. A great free program to eliminate this program is AdAware (www.freedownloads.com). This program takes minutes to install and scans your machine for adware. To give you an idea how insidious this problem is, the first time I ran AdAware on my new tablet, I had 182 pieces on adware. After cleaning the machine, I ran it again and in just five days, I had another 58 pieces. What’s amazing is that virtually all of the problems I was having with my computer disappeared once I eliminated the adware.

Step #4:

Install a firewall. This is an area where it pays to get the help of a professional, especially if you are using AOL because it tracks your Internet usage. Check with your ISP to see which systems they recommend.

If your computer is running slow or acting strange, it may be cookies, spyware, and adware causing the problem. Don’t leave yourself vulnerable to these insidious villains that invade your privacy and jeopardize your computer’s performance.

Bernice Ross, co-owner of Realestatecoach.com, has written a new book, “Waging War on Real Estate’s Discounters,” available online. She can be reached at Bernice@realestatecoach.com.

***

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