PSA: Suspicious Toolbars & other PUPs
Written by Staff Writer • Posted on Apr 06, 2016
Toolbars for Internet browsers are one of the most under-appreciated threats to computer performance today. Perhaps we've all become so comfortable with safe Internet practices that toolbar management has become second nature. Since we all know what to do, there's little value in repeating the rules and cautions, right?
Well, that's not exactly true. Not everyone who owns a computer is an expert, and if we aren't regularly reminded about toolbars (and other potentially unwanted programs), we might fall victim to future waves of spyware, adware and worse. For safe measure, let's go over what we know about toolbars and PUPs.
What Is A Toolbar?
Toolbars are add-on programs for web browsers. They're often associated with specific brands such as Yahoo!, Google or Norton Antivirus. Toolbars almost always have a search box, and they might contain links to other services like email, messaging, weather and shopping.
A toolbar saves a little time if you want to perform a search without navigating to a search engine first, but any searching you do will be tracked by the toolbar's company and used for whatever purpose they see fit. In most browsers, search toolbars have become redundant, because browsers now include a search box for Google, Yahoo!, Bing and other popular search engines.
Bad Toolbars & PUPs
While there are useful toolbars from reputable companies out there, there are far more of dubious origin or even malicious intent. The worst of these are known as browser hijackers, because they'll change your homepage without your consent or forcibly run your searches through their engine rather than the one you want.
A common site for malicious toolbars to redirect your searches to is Conduit, a search engine with poor security against phishing sites and other spyware. Other bad toolbars are simply a cover for inserting malware onto your computer.
Unwanted toolbars are grouped into the category of Potentially Unwanted Programs, or PUPs. PUPs straddle the line between legitimate software and malware. While they're not technically designed to harm your computer, they often get installed without you noticing, and then use up your memory and processor cycles to slow down your computer. They also share your information with third parties you might not want to share your data with.
PUPs are like minors trying to sneak into a club with fake IDs or latching onto someone who's actually allowed inside. A PUP will either pretend to be from a more reputable company to trick you into downloading it, or it'll come "bundled" with software you actually want to download.
In the latter case, there will be screens in the download or set-up window which ask for your consent to download the toolbar or PUP and "helpfully" check the Yes box for you in hopes that you aren't paying attention as you quickly click through the screens.
Examples of PUPs
A well-executed PUP scam will keep its additions to the desired product at a minimum. For example, one of the better-known PUP toolbars is the Ask.com toolbar that's bundled with Java. Java is a piece of software you need to run other programs on your computer, such as the popular game Minecraft.
When you download or update Java through the official website, you'll always be asked if you want to install the Ask.com toolbar and change your homepage to Ask.com. This prompt is a single screen near the end of the process, and it uses friendly-sounding words like "recommend" and "FREE." It's also similar enough to the previous screens that you might (the distributors hope) just click the "Next" button by habit. And just like that, the toolbar is installed.
PUP distributors aren't always so smart about bundling software, and sometimes, they go overboard. Several years ago, I purchased a new laptop and wanted to install iTunes. Being less wise than I am now, I didn't pay close enough attention to the search results, and I ended up someplace other than the official Apple website.
I started the download and began clicking through the screens, including several "recommended" programs. I blindly agreed to install the first three, but then all the clicks it was taking to download one program started to seem suspicious, so I paid closer attention.
Later, concerned about viruses, I tracked down and removed the PUPs I had installed. I'm still amazed that someone felt confident enough in the average person's inattention to push so many extra programs--and that it almost worked.
What To Do About PUPs
The simplest way to avoid bad toolbars and other PUPs is to pay attention. Verify that whatever you want to download is coming from the most reputable source possible, preferably the company's official website, to reduce the risk of being offered a PUP in the first place.
When downloading or installing a program from the Internet, read each screen carefully. Uncheck any boxes that ask you to install a toolbar, change your homepage, or change your default search engine.
If by chance you've picked up some unwanted toolbars or programs you don't remember installing, there is hope. Non-malicious PUPs can usually be uninstalled through the Control Panel as easily as any program. Some PUPs may have protection against removal, but they'll trip alarms with your antivirus software in some way or another. They'll eventually give themselves away by taking up space in your browser window, changing your homepage, and by being difficult to disable and remove.
If you're having trouble getting rid of a toolbar or an unwanted program, call us for help. We've seen hundreds of these programs, and we know exactly how to disable and remove them. It's our job!
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