Mafia Fronts

Another intro about food?

Back in college, I would visit my friends in the Buffalo area every once in a while. Most of the time we’d catch a bite at our favorite late-night taco stand, which had a really generic name like “Really Good Tacos” or something. Sure, the place wasn’t the newest establishment in town, or the cleanest, but the staff was really friendly, the food was great, the pinball machine was really fun, and that was that.

We always wondered why there was no sign on the building and why all of their business came from word-of-mouth. Oops. Rumor had it the place was just a Mafia front. Who knows, maybe people were playing cards in the back? Nevertheless, I really miss those late-night taco runs…

What I’m getting at

Where was I? Oh yes. Toolbars. Have you ever gone to a website such as Yahoo! Mail or AOL and been propositioned with a toolbar? Worse yet, have you ever just randomly noticed a toolbar showing up on your computer one day? Today I’m going to expose toolbars for what they are, and teach you how to protect yourself from them.

Just like “Really Good Tacos,” toolbars pose as things they’re not. Toolbars are nasty little bits of software that latch on to your Web browser (e.g. Internet Explorer or Firefox). They pass themselves off as legitimate software, offering to help you store your bookmarks, find coupon deals on the Internets, block pop-ups, find out the weather or sports scores, and many add a search box for Google, Bing, etc.

The worst part, in my opinion – they’re not even made by kids in stereotypical Eastern European basements… most of them are made by [very misguided] legitimate organizations!

This is no way for a computer to greet its owner.

Why they’re bad

Redundancy

When I mention to a client that they’re infected with a Toolbar, sometimes they’ll say “But wait! I need Google/Yahoo/Bing/Dingaling/Whatever!” My reply is twofold: First, any modern Web browser will have a built-in, customizable search box on the top-right. (Super new ones such as Chrome and Firefox 4 have one address bar that knows if you’re typing in a Web address or a search term.) Second, you can STILL go to Yahoo.com, Google.com, Aol.com, or any other site for that matter, and do what you have to do, without a toolbar latched on to your browser the entire day.

Privacy

If a toolbar latches itself on your Web browser, it has the ability to monitor everything you do. Every web site you go to, everything you buy, everything you type. Most of them claim they don’t, but we know for a fact that MyWebSearch and Dealio are two of the nastiest toolbars ever created.

As per their website, MyWebSearch claims that they do not spy on your computer or send you advertisements. They do admit, however, that their software hijacks your searches and redirects them through MyWebSearch servers. That redirect can live on long after you remove MyWebSearch from your computer in the form of a Default Search Provider (in order to remove the provider, you have to go into Search preferences in your browser… it’s tricky). Did I mention they hijack your homepage and send your browser to their website instead? It’s really funny to watch Yahoo! Toolbar and MyWebSearch duke it out and claim each other is trying to hijack your homepage settings.

In another example, Skype Toolbar (stows away with every Skype install – should be removed IMMEDIATELY after installation of Skype) forces itself on to your computer, slows down your Web browser, and scans EVERY web page you go to, hoping to find phone numbers on the page. When it thinks it finds a phone number, it floats a little “CALL THEM WITH SKYPE” icon next to the number… we can expect more of this behavior out of them now that Microsoft owns them…

Speed

So you wake up in the morning and turn your computer on. Let me guess, your Web browser takes 5 minutes just to appear. Sometimes you click on it again to push it along, but that only results in a longer wait time followed by several copies of the browser window showing up. This is because many toolbars in with their “publishers” for updates… wasting your valuable time. (Again, as per MyWebSearch’s website.)

If you have one toolbar, it may take a few seconds, but I’ve seen some poor souls infected with 5 or 10… (The record number I’ve seen so far is TWENTY NINE.) It takes forever to open their machine. That’s not to mention the time it takes to load each Web page you click on.

Interference

I won’t get into software update nuisances too much today, but I will mention that when your toolbar (or your browser) is updated, one may cause the other to crash. It happened last winter with Yahoo! Toolbar, and as much as I love AVG, their Security/SafeSearch Toolbars causes Firefox to crash after many updates.

In summary, toolbars are just as useless as GadgetBox.

Where they come from

The developers of these toolbars don’t respect you as a user. That’s what it boils down to. Toolbars can pour into your computer at any time, whether it’s AOL foisting it on unsuspecting AOL.com visitors (it happened to one of my customers and he couldn’t for the life of him explain how it got there), or adware stowing away with Adobe downloads (<- click that link for some entertaining words from frustrated victims).

The reason why you see so many of these is the fact that some free software (remember Snood?) has to be subsidized to remain free – enter stage left, the toolbar.

Examples to watch out for

  • Dealio Toolbar
  • Yahoo! Bar
  • BING BAR
  • HP Bing Bar (Stealthily implanted in your computer during HP printer software installs. More on that in a future article.)
  • MSN Toolbar
  • Search Toolbar (Microsoft)
  • MyWebSearch
  • RadioBar
  • AOL Toolbar
  • AOL Mail Toolbar
  • AIM Toolbar
  • ASK Toolbar
  • Translator Bar
  • Skype Toolbar
  • The Weather Channel Toolbar (and the eighty other ones it introduces into your system upon install)
  • AVG Security Toolbar
  • NORTON Security Scan Toolbar
  • McAfee Security Scan (stows away with Adobe downloads)
  • Google Toolbar (Stows away with both Adobe software and the otherwise-cool Google Earth.)
  • GameVance Toolbar (really nasty)
  • Zynga Toolbar (Connoisseurs of Facebook games will be rewarded with extra game points if they inflict this on themselves.)
  • and many, many more

Exterminating them

How do I know if I have any toolbars?

It’s really easy to find out if you have any toolbars- look at your Web browser! If your screen looks like any of my screenshots, then you have toolbars.

AOL actually splatters itself all over your browser

Will buying a bunch of spyware scanners take care of them?

The answer is no. Not only will the spyware scanners slow your computer down considerably, but most don’t protect you against toolbars as a genre. No cop in the world is going to walk into “Really Good Tacos” without some sort of probable cause, and the same goes for these things. Security software publishers can’t really go around accusing blue-chips such as AOL, Microsoft, and HP of creating malware.

Okay Marc you convinced me they’re harmful. How do I rid myself of them?

Here’s what you do:

  • In Windows XP, Click Start>Settings>Control Panel, or Start>Control  Panel, then double-click Add/Remove Programs.

  • In Windows Vista or Windows 7, Click Start>Control Panel then locate either Programs & Features or Remove a Program.
  • Up comes a list of your programs. Go through the list and make sure you click Remove for any of the toolbars I listed… or any other toolbars for that matter. Furthermore, highlighted below is one of the pieces of “bloatware” that AOL Toolbar invites over (and won’t go away until you tell it to):

AOL told its friends there would be punch and pie at your house

  • That should take care of the majority of them. However, I’ve seen some toolbars stick around post-extermination, so we have to do a bit more work.
  • If you use Internet Explorer, spray your computer with RAID immediately click Tools>Manage Add-Ons to see if any toolbars are enabled. Disable any you see.
  • To be absolutely sure you’re clean, you can also try Tools>Internet Options>Advanced>Reset. This can be found in most newer versions of IE. Click the “delete personal information” checkbox for good measure. It resets IE back to factory settings, disabling all toolbars in the process:
  • If you use Firefox, click Tools>Add-Ons>Extensions and Disable (or if possible Uninstall) any toolbars listed.
  • In a few cases, if the toolbar really won’t go away, see if you can find a Settings/Wrench button on the toolbar and politely ask it to go scre Uninstall itself.
Note: Don’t be alarmed if some of these toolbars send you to the publisher’s website after you remove them. They basically want to exit-survey you about why you removed it. The funny thing is, they know why! They offer multiple-choice answers such as: “It slowed down my computer”, “I’m concerned about privacy”, “My browser crashed”, etc.
Unfortunately, Macintosh and Ubuntu computers can come down with a case of toolbar, since toolbars are usually created to run within a browser. The good news is, I’ve yet to see Safari or Chrome infected with one, so on Mac/Ubu the only thing you’ll have to do is go through the Firefox cleanup process outlined above. 

Prevention
 
My goal here is to inform, not to scare. If you’ve removed some toolbars already, feel proud of yourself. If you can’t, give me a call and I’ll take care of everything for you. 
 
So let’s say they’re all gone. How do you prevent this from happening again? Simple.
  • Stop searching for “free screensavers” and “free games” online! They inevitably come with some species of toolbar.
  • Whenever you install any legit software, see if there’s a Custom install where you can disable the toolbars. This is necessary when you install Java, AVG, and many HP printers.
  • Never, ever touch The Weather Channel software. Not even with a 10-foot pole. It’s digital filth.
  • Be VERY careful when checking Yahoo! and AOL mail. They have tiny links that say “Install Toolbar” sprinkled around their websites that catch you off-guard.
  • Never let your kids touch your computer. Ever. A good chunk of my income is from customers who let their kids spend 5 minutes on their computers. Come to find out they’ve put music piracy software all over the place, or searched for a way to download YouTube videos. Back in my day, we had Etch-A-Sketch, baseball, and CB radios.

It’s your PC

As always, I’d like to emphasize that it’s your computer and your prerogative. If you really really like how Google Toolbar keeps all your bookmarks or whatever, that’s fine, keep it. Again, my job is enabling you to make informed decisions about the software you use.

That’s it for today, folks. We’ll see you next time right here on Teknosophy! Remember to tell your friends.

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One Response to Mafia Fronts

  1. Pingback: Spy vs. Spy | Teknosophy

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