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Computer Care: Beware of what you install with free programs

POSTED: November 2, 2012 11:59 p.m.

Free programs are great and the Internet is full of them. The problem is that many of these so-called freebies come with a price called malware that piggyback the application or utility you are trying to download.

I’ve talked about this in the past, but so many computers I’ve seen contain, for lack of a better term “self-installed malware,” that I thought this to be an important issue.

Even if those secondary rogue programs appear to be enticing, they are applications that you didn’t ask for or want. This is a big caveat emptor. They can end up being either trialware or, worse, not legitimate programs at all.

Let’s say for moment that those additional apps are real. They will either eventually expire, leaving remnants of a program and nagging pop-ups to purchase it or it will warn you of existing system errors, real or otherwise, that will require the app to be purchased to complete repairs.

Many of these buddy apps will last only a week or a month before requiring a purchase. Initially you are led to believe they are full programs; most often, they are not.

After you’ve realized that your system has been compromised, you’ll need to deal with removing the program. That’s usually not as simple as it sounds.

Even when installing the legitimate free program, caution is both paramount and essential. Each box you check and agree to has important information that needs to be read and understood. I’m not talking about the never-ending End User Licensing Agreement. I mean the pages that require you to check a box and click “OK” or “Next” to install it after the download is complete.

Often you inadvertently agree to have additional components installed or allow changes to be made to your system. These include toolbars or extensions (plug-ins) to your browser or gadgets to your desktop. Yes, this is where they come from. You put them there. You may also give permission to alter your browser’s home page or choice of search engines.

During installation you are asked to agree to have the program installed and where it is placed on your system (usually your C:/program files folder). But read the fine print. Be careful what you agree to. Scrutinize the instructions before you hit “Next.”

You can (and should) say “Decline” when asked to agree to these rogue apps or toolbars. Only agree to what you must to install the application at hand.

The installation of those other programs is what pays for your free programs.

You may come across a “free” utility that will claim to update your system’s device drivers. Most will scan your system and find a dozen or so drivers that require updating. Here’s the caveat: You need to purchase it to get the new drivers.

The same goes registry cleaners. You install a utility you downloaded and let it scan your system, only to find out it will again cost you to effect repairs.

Recently I was online to download and install a new version CCleaner, a good, free junk cleaner on my system.

At the very top of the page was a button conveniently placed that said, “Start Download.” That was very handy except for the fact that the button was for a registry cleaner, not CCleaner. Again, this is how the folks at Cleaner (and others) can offer their wares for free, by selling space on their page to others. The product is good, but the practice is deceptive and they hope you fall for it.

So when looking for that download button, be careful not to initiate a download of another application inadvertently.

Now there are also full versions of CCleaner and other programs that are offered for free. They are the enhanced versions of the free ones, usually with more bells and whistles and thus supplementary capabilities. If the free version is legitimate, the real one will be better, so don’t be afraid to purchase it.

This brings us the difference between an upgrade and an update. An update is adding new components to the existing program. It’s a good idea to keep an application updated. It’s free and usually quick.

An upgrade on the other hand is a newer program and it will cost you.

If you update your free antivirus app, you are adding new virus definition to the database. This is good.

But if you upgrade it, you are replacing the free version with one that costs money — your choice.

Even when downloading a free antivirus program, they will still try to trick you into installing their full, paid version. Initially it will be free, but that will generally last only a month, so be careful.

Never respond to a pop-up that appears on your screen unexpectedly and suddenly. Read carefully what each page says before you click “Next” and agree to have an app installed.

The integrity of your system depends upon it.

Arthur Glazer is a freelance writer and computer technician in Gainesville. His column appears biweekly on the Business page and on

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