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ABCNEWS.com: The Search Tool That Ate My Computer

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From ABCNEWS.com: The Search Tool That Ate My Computer

 

 

Counter-Spyware

The Search Tool That Ate My Computer

Commentary

By Michael S. Malone

ABCNEWS.com

 

May 20, 2004— Hundreds of thousands of people opened their computer

browser today to what they thought was their home page — and instead saw

the page for iSearch, a computer "spyware" program that has hijacked

their computer.

 

Thank you Fidelity Investments. Thank you TD Waterhouse. Thank you

Business Week Online. And thank you every other company that helps pay

for this extortion.

 

You've probably heard of spyware, virus-like programs that are

unknowingly downloaded by Web users. Spyware comes in several virulent

forms. One notorious type, evil cousins of subscription sites like AOL

and MSN, enable unknown predators to tap into your computer and gain

access to private files.

 

This is the type of spyware that gets the most attention from media, and

has been the source of some pending bills in Congress and various

statehouses. It was also the fear of just such intrusive spyware that

led to the backlash a couple weeks ago against Google's proposed GMail

service.

 

iSearch represents another type of spyware, one that is more subtle, but

ultimately no less destructive.

 

Trapped in Spyware Hell

 

iSearch works something like this: Some time during the course of

surfing the Web, you unknowingly trip over the iSearch applet, which is

instantly downloaded — without your knowing it — into your computer.

 

This program then does two things: 1) It orders your computer to

permanently switch to .iSearch.com as your new home page, and 2) Covers

its tracks, so that you can't simply go into your computer's utilities

and replace it. You are now trapped.

 

The next time you go on the Web, expecting to see Google or Yahoo! or

ABCNEWS.com as your home page, up pops the iSearch home page. There's

also an iSearch toolbar on the top of your page. "What the H*#$*?" you

mutter, figuring it's a mistake, and go on with your business — noting,

with growing annoyance that suddenly you are getting a whole bunch of

new pop-ups about stopping spyware, spam, etc. About the fifth time this

happens, you get furious, and try to use your computer's Internet Tools

window to reset your home page. That's when you are stunned to discover

that it won't work. So you go to Google and type in "iSearch toolbar

removal" — and up pops 2200 results, most of them filled with angry

people in the same predicament as you demanding, even pleading, for

information on how to get iSearch off their computers..

 

So you go back to the iSearch home page. Perhaps there's something

there. It's the standard search page: a column of "top searches" sites

on the left, a grid of search categories (auto, finance, gambling, etc.)

covering the rest of the page. You notice that on the "top searches"

items list, the first four are "uninstall software", "anti-virus", "stop

pop-ups" and "clean PC". There we go.

 

You click on "uninstall software", and get linked to Uninstaller.com,

which will sell you a software program of that name for $29.95. Next you

type "anti-virus" and get an eerily similar site, virushunter.com, which

offers to sell you its software — for $29.95. Ditto for pop-up blocker.

 

Now you are desperate. Back to Google and onto one of those bulletin

boards about uninstalling iSearch. There you find one recommendation

after another for anti-virus programs you can use … only to learn a few

messages later than the iSearch browser will not allow access to those

programs.

 

You are trapped. iSearch holds the cards. It is the equivalent of

someone giving you smallpox, then dangling an ampule of the vaccine in

front of you … for only $29.95.

 

In Search of iSearch

 

I learned most of this from my television business partner Bob Grove,

who, regular readers will remember, was my investigative reporter when I

ran Forbes ASAP. He's the guy who broke the big story on Internet child

porn that helped lead to a lot of the arrests you've read about the last

couple years.

 

I asked Bob to chase down iSearch. He was happy to do so — and motivated

as well: iSearch has taken over his computer's browser too. Here's what

Bob found.

 

First, you probably won't be surprised to learn that when you go looking

for iSearch there seems to be no there there. The Web site carries only

an e-mail address, no physical address. However, doing a little

research, Bob found that iSearch is actually owned by iDownload.com,

based at 701 Brazos, Suite 500, Austin, Texas 78701 (any Austin reader

of this column care to go by there and see if it is more than a mail

drop?). iDownload has an 800 number, but if you call it you only get

stuck in a phone mail tree.

 

Now, would it come as any surprise to you to learn that iDownload not

only owns iSearch, but also popupblocker.com, uninstaller.com and

virushunter.com — and several other $29.95 specials? Probably not.

 

But I'll bet you'd be surprised to learn that these products can be

purchased with your Visa, Diners Club, MasterCard, and American Express

cards — making them accessories to this scam. Or that iDownload is a

member of the Better Business Bureau Online Reliability Program (thank

you BBB!)

 

Oh, but it doesn't end there Go back to the iSearch home page — like you

have any choice — and click on some of the other "top searches," which

no doubt, like the first four, are paying advertisers. Try "investing."

What names pop up? Fidelity Investments, TD Waterhouse, Business Week

Online. …

 

Rotten, But Not Illegal

 

What are these reputable (or so we thought) organizations doing there?

There are only three possibilities. First, iSearch is using those names

without permission — in which case, who is minding the store? Second,

those firms bought placement on iSearch, not knowing what it was — in

which case, where is the oversight? Or third, those firms bought

placement on iSearch knowing full well what they were doing — which is

despicable.

 

The next time you want to invest your 401(k) money in Fidelity, or you

buy stock through TD Waterhouse, or having any dealings with any of the

other outfits listed on iSearch, you might want to remember what kind of

business they are consorting with.

 

OK, this whole thing is rotten, but is it illegal?

 

As far as I can tell, not yet. At least it is not criminal. And that

should make you give serious thought to contacting your state and

national representatives in support of anti-spyware legislation.

 

In the meantime, one would think that those companies who are supporting

the iSearches of the world with their advertising (or financial

services), would pull out or, better yet, bring action against them.

 

They should be joined in that civil suit by Google, Yahoo!, ABCNEWS.com,

CNN.com, Drudge and every other popular homepage site that is seeing its

revenues and traffic hijacked by iSearch and its ilk.

 

And the thousands of poor victims of this shakedown — what is their

remedy? Google back to "Uninstall iSearch toolbar" and keep reading the

suggested fixes. I can't recommend any of them here — for fear that

iSearch will quickly move to block them.

 

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most

recently was editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the

nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News

sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The

Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public

TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books

and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised.

 

[Fixed broken link --Mike]

Edited by Mike

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Until the general public realise that these large co's are using [knowingly or unknowingly] these scum bags and hit them where it hurts, they'll continue.

 

If nobody clicked on these pop-ups etc they would soon go out of business. but when it only needs one person in 10,000 to click well....

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