P2P Programs: Popular and Perilous

It’s time for a confession. Many of us have peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing software on our home PCs. Teenagers most often use P2P to search for and download the latest songs from their favorite artists and adults can find the songs of their youth. PC Pitstop research has shown that many of us have P2P programs such as Kazaa, Grokster, and Morpheus.

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Gator Information Center

The Gator Corporation makes several free applications that are distributed over the Internet. (On October 30, 2003, the company changed its name to Claria Corporation, but continues to operate in the same way it did before the name change.) Gator/Claria products are often delivered to end-users by being bundled with other applications or through “drive-by downloads” that pop up an ActiveX dialog and start the installation process if you say “Yes”.

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Direct Revenue: Greed Triumphs Over Decency

The recent lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General against Direct Revenue provides an incredible amount of information about the sleazy activities of spyware and adware companies. In the past, we’ve pointed out that these companies were making lots of money from their invasive installations. We saw a glimpse of how much money was at stake when Claria filed to go public in 2004. In that filing, they revealed that they made about $100 million in 2003. However, that high-profile bid to go public was at the height of Claria’s power and profit; they quietly aborted the attempt in the fall of 2004 and just recently announced that they are getting out.

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Anti-Spyware Coalition Workshop

On February 8 and 9, I had the opportunity to participate in the Anti-Spyware Coalition Public Workshop. The event brought together representatives from the software industry and government, including the Federal Trade Commission and the Center for Democracy and Technology. In the past year the FTC has filed suit against several of the worst spyware offenders including Enternet Media, and the CDT recently filed an FTC complaint against 180Solutions for its practices. The Anti-Spyware Coalition has been working to craft clear definitions of acceptable software installation behavior.

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Google – Is Good Going Bad?

Google’s corporate reputation is incredibly good for a company of its size. Yet increasingly, Google is at the scene of Internet frauds and crimes. Our CEO Rob Cheng has described our fight with unscrupulous Google advertisers, and these problems have continued. In April, a site named FasterXP.com begun to advertise with Google AdWords, hawking a product that installed several adware and spyware applications. Since we use Google AdSense, those ads appeared on the PC Pitstop site; several users were taken in before we could block the ad.

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Gator’s Advertisers

Gator/Claria makes its money through advertising. In fact, in their SEC S1 filing (Note: 4 megabyte document!) they had revenues of over $100 million dollars! Many of those advertisers are not aware how users have been unwittingly drafted into Claria’s ad network via confusing tactics. The challenge for us is to get the message to these companies, and there is one group that can effectively deliver that message: customers and potential customers.

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Shameless Optimism

Take a look at our in-depth investigation of infected files distributed via BitTorrent P2P networks and you’ll start to understand how hopeless it is to expect the adware industry to police itself. In some cases I think the problem is that adware companies are truly naive about how they are being played by their affiliate networks. In others, it’s easy to see that the companies are working hard on their see-no-evil position to futher their own company goals. Whether they’re being played for suckers or silently participating in this nasty business, the outcome for consumers is the same.

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Tribal Fusion Advertising

Since early in 2002, we have been using an ad network called Tribal Fusion that serves banner and popup ads to our web site. And since 2002, I have hated these popup ads. Dave would regularly bother me to kill the popup ads, but we just could not afford to do it. Advertisers are willing to pay a significant premium for pop up ads, and at times they have been a significant portion of our revenues. Although XP Service Pack 2 initially provided a respite to users with its built-in popup blocker, nearly all the ad networks have found ways around popup blockers, which makes the popups even more annoying.

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Welcome to PC Pitstop…Even if you made a typo

We only wish it could be under happier circumstances!

PC Pitstop has long owned the domain name pctuneup.com, which you may have entered into your browser to get here. For more than five years, PC Pitstop has been helping users get the most out of their PCs. We have worked aggressively to raise awareness of problems such as spyware and adware that can invade your privacy and ruin your online experience. We are proud to say that we have not even let legal threats stop our efforts.

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Chasing Children

PC Pitstop has mentioned the problem with spyware and kids before, but last week’s CNet spyware conference showed it isn’t going to be easy getting quick and meaningful action on this issue. It’s too bad. While some adware makers like WhenU seemed to be genuinely interested in changing their ways, others like Claria seemed intentionally evasive and unwilling to change any of their practices.

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Safe Surfing

Your kids are being targeted by spyware and other Internet-based threats. What can you do to help them surf safely?

In the first installment of this series, we showed how various Web sites and software publishers target your children and teenagers with threats such as spyware and adware. Now let’s look at what you can teach your kids about how to surf more safely in spite of the dangers. We’ll highlight some of the danger signs that can provide a tip that something is amiss, and show how to respond in a way that can protect your kids and your computer.

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Open Letter to Thomas Cook and Oyster Partners

Today I read that Thomas Cook has begun an online ad campaign that includes advertising on Claria’s GAIN ad network. I wanted to make Oyster Partners and Thomas Cook aware that there may be negative aspects to associating their brands with Claria and its GAIN network. Although Claria claims that its users have opted into the GAIN network, our own research shows that most users do not even know the software is installed on their system. A survey of users commissioned by StaySafeOnline showed similar negative feelings about products such as Claria’s. Other researchers have found that Claria/GAIN uses
misleading installation and disclosure practices.

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The Spyware Name Game

There’s a lot of confusion about exactly what the term “spyware” means and it seems that everyone has an angle. For example, some shady software vendors prominently label their programs “spyware-free” even though in fact they may contain undesirable software hitchhikers that most of us would classify as spyware. The companies justify these claims by using an extremely narrow definition of the term “spyware” — but in our minds, these claims wouldn’t be much different than a soda manufacturer’s proclaiming that its product is “sugar-free” and justifying this statement by arguing that the corn syrup in the soda just doesn’t fall under its definition of “sugar”.

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Are Your Children Safe from Spyware?

If you have kids, then the computer they use — which may also be the computer you use — is vulnerable to infestation by spyware. Spyware preys on the behavior of children, and teens in particular, by parking itself in the programs they download and on the sites they visit. Peer-to-peer music-swapping software, free online games, screen savers, song-lyrics sites are prime destinations for kids and many of them can carry an unwanted payload that can melt down a machine. But by teaching your kids appropriate behaviors and habits, and using some protective software, you can go a long way toward preventing spyware from gaining a foothold on your system.

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Follow the Money

When Dave and I were at the Spyware Conference in Washington DC, we were approached by Avi Nader, CEO of WhenU. Avi was upset because we were passing our WhenU research to various reporters at the conference. Avi cornered Dave and me and asked, “Why are you picking on us? Why don’t you focus on the guys doing identity theft, and other horrible deeds?” I have had a lot of time to think about this question and my answer. Avi, if you’re listening, here is my response.

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