Spyware Horror Story: Once is enough

How bad must malware be to alienate the neighborhood fixit man?

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Spyware Horror Story

Published by Aaron; Arlington, Texas

My dad and I run a little tech support place for our neighborhood (we work for food). We have seen some nasty things around this area, but this next story is the worst. One of our family friends came over with her computer, telling us it was a "little" slow. So, we dragged my huge 17-inch CRT monitor with built-in speakers across the house to our little shop (not fun) and turned on the infected computer. We waited and waited until it finally loaded.

She (the family friend) had Ad-Aware loaded at the time, so we ran it, only for it to crash. At this point, we should have given up and just nuked the hard drive with a little Department of Defense-level program that writes zeros to every cell on the drive three times. But we didn't, and rebooted the computer in Safe Mode.

We then took a look at Ad-Aware and noticed that it hadn't been updated in a year, but we ran it anyway. Over 10,000 infections were picked up on an outdated program. At this point, we toyed with the idea of just taking out our gun and putting the PC out of its misery, but figured the owner wouldn't like that very much. So we tried to fix it.

Three days later, we had gotten a little less than halfway through, so we call her and asked if she had her Windows XP disk. She brought it over and we completely nuked the hard drive, reinstalled Windows, installed Spybot - Search and Destroy, the current Ad-Aware version with its up-to-date definitions, and Zone-Alarm. We scheduled Ad-Aware to run every week. Now we refuse to help the lady anymore. Once was more than enough.

CNET Download.com editor

Editor's response

First the process, then the politics. Process: Adding a firewall and scheduling scans was a good plan. We hope you also enabled the programs to auto-check for updates (where offered) and warned Mrs. X what to look for in an update notification, lest she ignore it again. We would have swapped Spybot - Search and Destroy for AVG Anti Virus Free Edition's more comprehensive and robust malware shield, however. The real-time protection, antivirus and antispyware engine, and URL link scanning are far more reliable than the classic Spybot, which was buggy in some of our tests. In Spybot's defense, it does possess an ambitious and useful feature set and is recommended as a suitable backup application for spyware removal.

Now the manners: Since good, free computer help is so hard to find, it's a shame that Aaron's family friend charred her bridges. That's a relationship a novice should nurture with everything they've got. I wonder if more planning on her part and a greater show of appreciation might have helped forefend her blacklisting.

In an ideal world where everyone lives by a shared code of computing engagement, Mrs. X would have already assembled her installation and program disks, power cords, and a peace offering (mound of home-made cookies, a favorite libation) into a tidy package for the father-son duo as acknowledgment of her volunteer laborers' valued time.

A more likely scenario is that Mrs. X was unaware of the tacit requirements and solely relied on her helpers for guidance. Aaron and his father could have saved themselves some time by counseling Mrs. X to back up what she could and bring the critical disks along with her PC before dropping off her computer.

While a gift certificate to a restaurant or electronics store is always in order as a thank-you--your friends did just save you hundreds of dollars, after all--it might have also helped weakened some of the pair's prohibition against future help. Perhaps Mrs. X did lavish her repairmen with gifts--Aaron didn't say--and Aaron and his dad are unfairly making her a scapegoat. At the first hint of what the two were up against, they could have--and turns out, should have--pulled the plug on their repair efforts and reinstalled the hard drive, saving themselves untold aggravations until they eventually lit upon that course.

Either way, the world needs more volunteer repairmen like Aaron and his dad, and fewer infections as time-consuming as Mrs. X's.

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About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.