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Spyware And Adware Continue To Plague PCs

The characters who create and distribute spyware eventually reach a crossroads. Some clean up their acts, present themselves as adware aficionados, and do their best to legitimize questionable marketing techniques. Others continue their shady work on the sly. One major player reached a dead end: Adware pusher Claria last week revealed plans to exit the controversial business.

Efforts to control the parasitic code are widening as watchdog groups employ new tactics and law enforcement cracks down on suspects. The Center for Democracy and Technology last week issued a report that points the finger not just at adware distributors, but also at nearly a dozen of their clients, including Club Med Americas, NetZero, and ProFlowers. "These advertisers see the benefits of advertising with these companies that engage in unfair and deceptive practices, but they haven't seen the downside," says Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the nonprofit public policy group.

Soaring Sales bar chartStopBadware.org, a new watchdog group, last week added four popular programs to its "badware" list: file-sharing program Kazaa, spyware removal software SpyAxe, download manager MediaPipe, and Screensaver.com's Waterfalls 3 screensaver. And the Los Angeles City Attorney's office revealed that it filed the first criminal spyware case in California, charging three people with running companies that distributed spyware in the guise of legitimate software tools.

IT departments have been fighting spyware and adware--they're different, but both troublesome--for several years, and there's something to show for their efforts: Fewer machines are getting infected. While spyware infected 81% of consumer PCs last year, that's down from 91% in 2004, according to anti-spyware vendor Webroot, which scanned more than 2 million PCs to arrive at those findings.

That's progress, but there were setbacks, too. The average spyware count on each machine climbed in 2005, to 25 instances, and the programs are increasingly malicious, with more Trojan horses than before.

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