In the zone
Protecting your PC with Adaware
BargainBuddy, 180 Search Assistant, NavExcel: these names strike fear and loathing into the hearts of Web surfers the world over. But these are far from the only spyware components you need to worry about. Cyberspace is crawling with all kinds of vicious critters that can wreak havoc on your system, and the problem is only getting worse, as unsavory software developers spawn more malignant and sneaky spyware variants virtually overnight. One of the most popular spyware-combat tools on the market is the free Ad-Aware, but don't let its cute baby-blue interface and price tag fool you: It's a powerful program capable of dealing with many of the newest, most serious threats. In fact, it took top honors in the latest edition of our spyware obstacle course.
Step 1: Stay up to date
Like most antispyware utilities, Ad-Aware works by comparing your PC's contents with a database of known malware. Spyware manufacturers are always trying to stay one step ahead of the programs designed to foil them by routinely unleashing new nasties on the Web. However, antispyware developers are just as savvy, and they regularly update their databases with the newest spyware definitions. Before you scan your PC for problems, you should make sure your copy of Ad-Aware is equipped with the most up-to-date database. From the main interface, you can click the globe icon in the upper-right corner, or you can simply click the link that says "Check for updates now". You'll have to connect to the publisher's server and hit OK a couple of times, but the process goes quickly.
You can also configure Ad-Aware to regularly prompt you to update its spyware definitions. To do so, click the gear-shape button at the top of the main window. The General Settings tab contains a Definitions section, where you can enter the maximum number of days that should pass before the program asks you to update it. We'd suggest updating your spyware definitions every couple of days--it's better to be safe than sorry.
Step 2: Start the spyware scan
Ad-Aware offers two main scanning options: a quicker smart scan and a more thorough full-system scan. If you've never used the program before or suspect your PC is jam-packed with malevolent software, you should opt for the deep-scan mode. Click the Scan Now button on the program's left side, mark the box that reads "Perform full system scan", then hit the Next icon. The scanning process will probably take a while--especially if you keep a lot of files on your computer--so you might want to step away for a breath of fresh air. The next time you use the program, you can safely go with the faster smart scan option, which is still very effective.
Step 3: Remove the intruders
Once Ad-Aware has finished scanning your computer for spyware, a summary screen appears, which shows you the amount and type of threats the program detected. Ad-Aware categorizes its findings as either critical or negligible; clearly, you should focus your attention on the Critical Objects tab. There, you'll see what kinds of nefarious modules and Registry keys Ad-Aware found on your machine. The app will tell you the names of all the malicious components and what kinds of spyware they are, as well as show you the physical location of each threat on your PC. If you right-click the check box next to any entry on the list, a rather lengthy menu will pop up. Scroll about halfway down and choose the option "Select all objects". Click the Next icon, then hit OK in the pop-up box. The amount of time it takes Ad-Aware to complete the removal process depends on how much malware is on your machine, but the app will notify you when it has finished cleaning out your computer.
Step 4: Optimize scan times
As noted above, Ad-Aware's scan times can be quite lengthy if you have a large hard drive with many files. However, you can take a couple of steps to make future scans more efficient. The program searches for cookies and categorizes them as Critical Objects, even though they don't pose a real threat to your security. You can decrease scan times by configuring the program to ignore cookies. From the Scanning Results screen, find the cookies (near the bottom of the list) and mark the check boxes next to their names. Right-click one of the selected cookies, then scroll down the context menu and choose Add Selected to Ignore List. The next time you scan your machine, Ad-Aware won't include those cookies in its results.
Similarly, you can have the program ignore certain drives on your computer, such as your CD or floppy drive. When selecting a scan mode, check the radio button labeled "Use custom scanning options", then click the Customize link. Under the Drives, Folders & Files heading, click the link next to the Windows folder icon labeled "Select drives & folders to scan".