There could be a number of causes. If you didn’t already realize it, running Windows without proper security software was not a brilliant idea. In retrospect, those file-sharing and P2P programs like LimeWire or Azureus were a poor choice (not to mention illegal). And clicking on that "Get a Free Wii" pop-up probably made things worse.
Level 1 – Search and Destroy
Hopefully you have some minor spyware that can easily be removed. Several freeware programs out there are really effective at spyware removal. Spybot Search and Destroy can be downloaded for free and can usually do a pretty good job of removing most pieces of spyware. Another one, BitDefender, has a free version that does not offer real-time (permanent) protection but is great for one-time virus removal. These may take up to half an hour or so each to scan your computer. For either one, make sure the definitions are fully updated before you begin scanning. Infected files can be either deleted or quarantined for future repair. At this point, try restarting your computer and see how it works. If it seem to get back to normal, and the annoying pop-ups are gone, looks like the problem is solved.
Level 2 – Shock and Awe
If your computer still seems to be having problems, it is time to up the treatment. SpySweeper is a paid software, but a trial version can be downloaded for free. Download and install SpySweeper, and let it do the dirty work. Consider napping or talking a walk during the two hours it might take to do its job. After the scan is complete, it will ask you to either quarantine or delete the infected files. At this point, most viruses, Trojans, spyware programs, and pop-up generators should be gone. Go ahead and uninstall SpySweeper, since you will no longer need it.
Level 3 – Regime Change
If the problems seem to persist, the cleanest solution is an operating system reformat. If you have documents, pictures, and audio files that you would like to keep, consider investing in an external hard drive. This can range anywhere from sixty to two hundred dollars and can hold anywhere from 60GB to 1TB of data. It is a reasonable investment, since it will come in useful later on as well for storage and backup. Make sure you have reinstallation CDs for all the software programs you paid for, such as Microsoft Office, since there is no way to recover any of them. Lastly, you will need your Windows reinstallation CD, as well as your drivers and utilities CDs.
If you have Windows XP, things will be simple. Put the CD in the CD drive, and reboot the computer. When it is starting up, choose the option to boot from the CD. Follow the instructions on how to do a new installation, delete the old partitions, and configure the system to your preferences. About an hour later, you will have a brand new operating system. Use the drivers CD to reinstall audio, video, and Internet drivers, and transfer the data from the external drive to your new computer.
NOTE: If you are not comfortable with doing a reinstallation yourself, or if you are missing any of the reinstallation CDs, it would be wise to consult a professional, such as at Best Buy or Circuit City, who could tell you what kind of options you have and how much each one would cost.
Epilogue – Keeping Clean
After any of Levels 1 – 3, it would be wise to have real-time protection. Consider investing in one of several security softwares available for purchase. Sites such as www.deals2buy.com have a daily update of cheap technology products, and you can generally find a good deal on a security suite. I would recommend purchasing Symantec AntiVirus, as well as downloading SpyBot. Both of these will run in the back when you start your computer. Let SpyBot do a scan once a week to clean out any spyware that might have sneaked by. Try using Mozilla Firefox as your browser instead of Internet Explorer, as it is much stronger against pop-ups and hazardous websites. Don't click on pop-ups, and only install software from verifiable sources. Lastly…please do not install LimeWire again!
Arsalan Rizvi works as a Lab Consultant for the University of Denver Technology Services.