200 Malicious Files Found: A Cautionary Tale

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I spent last weekend at my in-laws' house. We had a nice time, other than the hours I spent in front of my brother-in-law's Windows PC getting a first-hand refresher course in why Macs are incalculably better than PCs.

My brother-in-law Mike's PC is a modern Dell PC, one his parents bought for him to use at college. You may be asking yourselves, "Why are the in-laws of Macworld's editor in chief buying Windows PCs?" It's a question I've asked myself numerous times. The answer has something to do with having to know my father-in-law.

In any event, although my wife and I had convinced most of her family that buying Mike a Mac was the way to go, it didn't happen. And so he returned from his freshman year at college with a dusty computer, one he said he basically hadn't used since December. Why? Because his computer was so infested with adware and spyware that it was unusable.

If you're an exclusive Mac user, you may not know about adware and spyware. Consider yourself lucky. Basically, adware programs are malicious beasties that run in the background on Windows and spew forth browser windows full of advertisements at random times. You have to be connected to the Internet for them to work, but that's it. Mike said he would be typing college papers in Microsoft Word, only to discover that his last sentence had been eaten because an Internet Explorer pop-up ad had magically appeared in front of his Word window.

It gets worse. We bought a copy of Norton AntiVirus 2004 in an attempt to eradicate these monsters from his PC. And it found "200 malicious files!" What's worse, Norton only managed to blast out about 150 of those files, leaving 50 still in operation. Some of those 50 were adware and spyware apps added as "DLLs," modules that load directly into the system and which can't be deleted without some serious potential complications.

After about six multi-hour Norton scans, we managed to remove all but about six bad files. Mike's still getting pop-ups, but they're not as bad as they used to be. But to really cure him, I suspect that we'd need to completely reinstall Windows XP.

Meanwhile, my in-law's own PC was completely useless when we arrived, having been broken by the installation of a computer game. After a few days at a technician who said he didn't know how the PC was broken and didn't know quite how he'd managed to fix it, the PC returned -- but with no Internet connection and a non-working e-mail client. Once the technician made another house call, the Internet and mail client were working, but outgoing mail was blocked by a MAPI error.

I searched the Internet for information about how to fix that error, and found thousands of documents from web sites devoted to troubleshooting PC errors. What did I discover? Nobody really understood why that error occurred, and nobody had any definitive advice about how to fix it. Not even Microsoft.

At some point during this weekend I had a burst of anger and shouted to nobody in particular (only my wife heard me), "Why does 'everyone' in the world put up with this junk?" My wife, a fellow Mac user, had no good answers.

At least one good computer-related thing came out of last weekend, however. My in-laws, frustrated with their own decaying Windows PC, seem to have come to their senses and decided to buy a new iMac. So perhaps there's hope after all. Not for Mike, who's saddled with a Windows PC for the rest of his college career. But for the rest of the family, at least.

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