Spyware Horror Story: Addicted to cracks

Visiting crack sites isn't the only path to free software favorites, but it's a common way to pick up viruses. Read two tales of woe and get smart tips for protection and recovery.

In which two readers were burned by high-risk computing.

Submitted by Peter; Tamuning, Guam

Well, to begin with, I tried to get Microsoft Office Enterprise Edition from torrents site mininova.com. There was even a whole bunch of comments saying that it worked "great." So when it finally finished downloading, I opened it, and got it installed. It really did work "great." But then after a few times running it, things started to go wrong. So I tried deleting, but it keeps saying that its "write-protected." I opened the folder and deleted random files to see if that would delete the virus, but it didn't work. However, what I did find was a Notepad document with a bunch of instructions telling the computer to change all values to 3 or something like that. Now I still have the file because of my stupidity in thinking that there wasn't a price to pay. Any advice?

Submitted by Ivan; Rome, Italy

I'm a 12-year-old guy who I think knows way more about PCs than he should. Not long ago my friend came and installed a cracked version of an NHL hockey game. At first, I though it was cool and played it a little. However, once I restarted the computer, my CHKDSK service was running a complete hard drive scan, even though I didn't authorize it. Since it was late, I had to go to bed. I shut down my PC--let me tell you, that was a mistake, besides the fact that I wasted my money on Windows Vista!

The next morning when I turned on my computer, I got the Blue Screen of Death. Error code: 0x00000024. This means that a very important NTFS file was removed or misplaced during a system scan. I thought it was my mistake and that my parents would kill me.

However, the next day, my friend told me that when he was installing NHL, he forgot that he misplaced the crack icon for one of the viruses that he got from the Internet. Let me tell you something, you didn't want to be my friend then. Anyway, the solution was that I had to undergo a complete Vista reinstall, but I had to wait a whole three weeks for my father to buy the CD for me.

I did send my friend a little virus I made myself, though harmless. Now, I'm running Comodo Firewall Pro and AVG Anti-Virus 8.0.

Editor's response

Editor's Response

I guess some users insist on being moths, forever attracted to the flickering flame of crack sites and peer-to-peer downloads, for the same reasons that everyone else engages in risky behavior. Free programs, music, and games are the glimmering rewards, but over the years, readers have been singed by some accompanying viruses. (Here's another example.)

Maybe it's that law-abiding school mom streak in me, but weren't you guys kind of asking for it? Crack and P2P sites are absolutely notorious for ladling out code you don't want along with the downloads you do, some of which end up jammed or have been purposely jimmied to carry malicious software. I can't condone illegal acquisitions of any type, and I won't tell you how to game the system, but there are applications out there anyone can--should--use to scan files before they're downloaded and installed. If your regular antivirus software doesn't have that feature, I'd recommend at least the light (free) version of link-scanning software for any user.

Even folks who regularly download from normally OK sites should consider bumping up to pro versions of the software, which digitally eyes instant-message links, software signatures, and the malicious software payload that could be packed in with all the good stuff. AVG Anti-Virus 8.0, which Ivan mentioned, recently padded their product with the capability to do just that when they bought the makers of LinkScanner Lite and LinkScanner Pro. AVG Anti-Virus 8.0 Free Edition, which is expected to release this Thursday, incorporates the light version of the link-scanning software.

OpenOffice.org

Peter asked for advice to his dilemma, the false move that got him a bunk enterprise-edition of Microsoft Office. It's pretty simple, actually. Don't go for Microsoft. What you want is product, not brand. If your goal is to get a powerful office suite for free, excellent desktop and Web ware alternatives have emerged as viable contenders that also drop the cost. Try out OpenOffice.org, a multilanguage open-source productivity suite that does most of what Microsoft's application can do with text, spreadsheets, presentations, and HTML and XML documents. It earned a 5-star editorial review.

Zoho is another credible option, and a winner of the Webware 100, an annual user award based on Webware.com, CNET's site for Web application reviews. While Zoho's suite isn't quite as deep as Microsoft Office, it is broad, and offers the use of over 20 applications to engage everyday and business tasks.

Here's my final piece of advice for you guys, and really something every user should follow. Save all your installation disks, including printer drivers, boot-up disks, whatever you've got, and keep them all together, for example, in a big CD case. This goes for backup disks, too. Keep the CDs well organized and clearly labeled, and put the collection somewhere uncluttered--not back in a closet somewhere or in some random box. This way, when things goes wrong, as they almost always do at some point in a computer-owner's lifetime, the confidence you've built from knowing you have a reinstallation plan will offset the panic of losing months, perhaps years, worth of data.

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