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Conquering Malicious Software : Conquering Spyware with Windows Defender

10/11/2012 6:32:33 PM

Spyware (and its close cousin adware) isn't specifically designed to cause your computer harm. But even without the direct intent to do harm, spyware can have serious consequences. Too much spyware can bog your system down, causing everything to run slower than it should. Spyware can make unwanted changes to your Internet settings, causing your Web browser to act in unexpected ways. Spyware can lead to many annoying pop-up ads. In the worst cases, it can send personally identifiable information about you to identity thieves.

Most spyware comes from software that you can download for free, such as screen savers, custom toolbars, and file-sharing programs. However, it can also be installed automatically from scripts and programs embedded in Web pages.

There are many programs on the market that are designed to prevent and eliminate spyware (and adware). But you don't have to spend any money or download any third-party programs to protect your system from these threats. You can use Windows Defender, which comes with Windows 7 for free. Despite its focus on spyware, Defender actually protects your computer from any potentially unwanted programs. That includes many types of adware, Trojan horses, and rootkits.

1. Opening Windows Defender

Windows Defender doesn't need to be open to protect your computer. But you can do other things with Defender that do require opening the program. As with most programs, you have many ways to open Defender. Use whichever is most convenient for you at the moment:

  • Open the Control Panel and click the All Control Panel Items link in the left pane; then, open Windows Defender.

  • Press , type def in the Search box, and click Windows Defender.

When Windows Defender opens, it looks something like Figure 1.

2. Removing spyware from your computer

Windows Defender offers many tools for fighting spyware. One of them is the ability to scan your system for any spyware that you might have already acquired. You can do a Full Scan, which takes a while but gives you the peace of mind of knowing that your system is free of malicious spyware. Or you can do a Quick Scan. As its name implies, the Quick Scan takes less time because it focuses on areas where spyware is most likely hiding. You can also opt for a Custom Scan, which lets you choose which drives you want to scan. To perform a scan, click the arrow next to the Scan button, as shown in Figure 2, and then select the desired scan option.


If you're unable to scan for spyware from a standard account, an administrator may need to enable scanning for you. 

A full scan takes several minutes, so you need to be patient. When the scan is complete, you should see a clean bill of health. If not, suspicious items will be quarantined (disabled). You should be taken to the quarantined list automatically, though you can get there any time by choosing Tools => Quarantined Items.

Figure 1. Windows Defender.

Figure 2. Scan for spyware.

Each item in the quarantined list has an alert level associated with it. Here's what each alert level means:

  • Severe: This item is known to compromise the security of your computer. It should be removed immediately.

  • High: This item may be too new to be well known. But all indications point to malicious intent, so the item should be removed immediately.

  • Medium: This item appears to collect personal information or change Internet settings. Review the item details. If you do not recognize or trust the publisher, block or remove the item.

  • Low: This is a potentially unwanted item that should be removed if you did not intentionally install it yourself.

  • Not Yet Classified: This item is unrecognized but is potentially something you don't want on your computer.

To remove an item, click its name and click Remove. You can usually click Remove All, because valid, useful programs are rarely detected as spyware or other potentially unwanted items. If in doubt, you can leave the item quarantined for a while. Use your computer normally to see whether some useful program no longer works. After you've determined that everything is okay, you can go back into Quarantined Items and remove anything you left behind.

Should you ever encounter a false positive (where an innocent program is quarantined), don't remove it. Instead, click its name and then click Restore.

2.1. Doing a quick scan

A full scan takes some time because it scans every file on your hard disk. You can save some time by doing a quick scan. A quick scan checks only new files and the kinds of files commonly used by spyware. After you've done a single full scan, quick scans are sufficient.

2.2. Doing a custom scan

A custom scan lets you scan a specific drive or folder. For example, if someone sends you a CD or DVD, you might want to check that disk before copying or opening any files from it.

For downloads, you might consider creating a subfolder within your Documents folder, perhaps named Unscanned or something similar. Whenever you download a file or save an e-mail attachment that you don't trust 100 percent, save it to that Unscanned folder. Then scan just the folder to make sure all is well. If the files check out okay, you can then move them to any folder you like. Or, in the case of a downloaded program, click the icon to start the program installation.

To do a custom scan, click Scan in Windows Defender and choose Custom Scan. Then click the Select button and click to select the drive you want to scan. Or, expand any drive icon and select the specific folder you want to scan. Then click OK to start the scan.

2.3. Automatic scanning

You can also set up Defender to automatically scan your system daily, weekly, or however often you wish. You must be logged in to an account with administrative privileges to set up automatic scanning. From the Administrator account, start Windows Defender normally. Then click Tools and Options. Automatic scanning options appear as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Automatic scanning options.

To enable automatic scanning, make sure the Automatically Scan My Computer (Recommended) check box is selected (checked). Then you can set a schedule for scanning. For example, if you use a desktop computer that you leave on 24 hours a day, choose Daily and a time during which you're unlikely to be using the computer. If the computer isn't turned on when the scheduled time arrives, the scan will take place the next time you start the computer. Choose the type of scan you want to perform on the schedule.

If your computer is on and online 24 hours a day, you can also choose Check for Updated Definitions before Scanning. Doing so ensures that Defender is up-to-date with all known spyware when it scans.

Under the Default Actions heading, you can choose how you want an automatic scan to treat Severe, High, Medium, and Low alert items, as follows:

  • Recommended Action Based on Definitions: Choose this option to take the action that's recommended in the item's definition.

  • Remove: Choose this option if you want the item removed automatically when found.

  • Quarantine: Choose this option to have Windows Defender place the item in quarantine and prevent it from running until you review it and choose to either restore it or delete it.

  • Allow: Have Defender add the software to the allowed list and allow it to run on the computer. This option is available only for the Medium and Low alert items.

If in doubt about what to choose, your best bet is to choose the Recommend Action Based on Definitions option. Each malware item that Defender identifies has a definition that specifies its intent, severity, and recommended actions. The definitions are created by human experts who have previously found and analyzed the item. Unless you're an expert yourself, your best bet is to allow those expert definitions to choose a course of action.

2.4. Preventing Spyware

You've probably heard the saying "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." That's certainly true of spyware. Getting rid of spyware that has already infected your computer is a good thing. But preventing it from getting there in the first place is even better. That's where real-time protection comes into play. The term "real time" means "as it's happening."

The Windows Defender real-time protection analyzes files as they approach your computer from the Internet. Any spyware or suspicious-looking files are blocked to keep your computer from being infected.

Real-time protection is turned on by default. You can control whether it's on or off, and optionally tweak what it monitors by clicking Tools in Defender and choosing Options. Click Real-Time Protection to see the real-time options shown in Figure 4.

Following is a description of the options available for real-time protection:

  • Use Real-Time Protection (Recommended): Turn on real-time protection.

  • Scan Downloaded Files and Attachments: Monitor ActiveX controls and software installation programs that are downloaded, installed, or run from your Web browser.

    Figure 4. Defender real-time protection options.
  • Scan Programs That Run on My Computer: Monitor other programs installed on your computer to search for suspicious activity.

2.5. Excluding Files and Folders

In some situations, you might want to exclude certain files or folders from being scanned by Windows Defender. For example, if there are folders or files that you know are safe but could take a long time for Windows Defender to scan or could cause problems when scanned, you can exclude them. You can also exclude files based on their file type.

To set folder or file exclusions, click the Excluded Files and Folders link in the Windows Defender Options page. Click Add, select a folder or file, and click OK. Repeat the process for any other folders or files you want excluded.

To exclude files by type, click the Excluded File Types link. Click in the text box, type the file extension of the files you want to exclude from scanning, and click Add. Then, click Save to save your changes.

2.6. Advanced and Administrator Configuration Options

If you click Advanced in the Defender Options window, you see the Advanced options shown in Figure 5. These options include:

  • Scan Archive Files: Scan inside archive files such as zip and CAB files for malware.

  • Scan E-Mail: Scan the contents and attachments of e-mail for malware.

  • Scan Removable Drives: Scan USB and other removable media for malware.

  • Use Heuristics: When scanning, detect malware by matching partial malware signatures. This option can enable Defender to identify threats that have been modified (derivative threats) since the signature was released.

  • Create Restore Point: Create a Windows Restore Point prior to applying actions to detected items to enable you to roll back Windows to its previous state.

Clicking Administrator in the Options page lets you configure two additional options for Windows Defender. The Use This Program option, when selected, enables Defender. Deselecting this option turns off Defender. Unless Defender is causing a problem with your computer or a specific program, you should leave this option selected to enable Defender to protect your system. The second option, Display Items from All Users of This Computer, enables you to see the History, Allowed items, and Quarantined items for all users. These items are normally hidden.

3. Disallowing Allowed Programs

There may be times when you allow a program that you know and trust to run without any warnings from Windows Defender. These get added to the allowed programs list when Windows Defender alerts you about an item and you click Always Allow. Later, you might change your mind about that. If you do, you can click Tools in Defender to open its Options page. Then click Allowed Items. From there you can click any item and choose Remove from List to have Windows Defender start monitoring the program again.

Figure 5. Advanced Defender configuration options.

4. Joining the SpyNet Community

The SpyNet community is a huge group of Windows Defender users who keep a watchful eye on potential spyware. Joining the community allows you to see how others are treating suspicious software that hasn't yet been classified by experts. Seeing how others deal with a suspicious file can help you make decisions about suspicious files on your computer. When Defender finds a suspicious file, the community's rating appears as a graph indicating the number of members who have allowed the item.

To join the Microsoft SpyNet community, open Windows Defender, click Tools, and choose Microsoft SpyNet. Then choose the Basic Membership, Advanced Membership, or No Membership option as described on the page that opens.

5. Windows Defender Web Site

The Windows Defender Web site is a great resource for staying up-to-date with spyware threats and tools. The Community link on that page offers further resources for live interaction with others grappling with spyware decisions and experts to help you make those decisions. You can get to the Web site by clicking the Windows Defender Web site link on Defender's Tools page.
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