The Search Tool That Ate My Computer
By Michael S. Malone
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
nations 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, 17 February 2005 - 08:11 PM.