The ghost in your machine: solutions for spyware

If your computer’s been acting a little strange lately, there’s a good chance it’s possessed — by spyware, that is. This malicious software, designed to collect personal information and relay it back to hackers and marketers, has managed to infiltrate an estimated 67% of all PCs and it’s reduced many an expensive investment to sluggish jelly. If you think your computer is infected, don’t get mad — take control. Here’s how:

Your frustration level: Medium

Solution: arm yourself

At the first sign your computer is acting sluggish or strange, download Ad-Aware and Microsoft’s AntiSpyware and use both in a two-pronged attack to sweep that spyware away. Then you can install a prevention program, such as SpywareBlaster or SpywareGuard (both from to keep the nasty spyware from coming back.

Cost: free

Your frustration level: High

Solution: embrace the old

A surprisingly effective way to avoid getting infected in the first place is to use software that most spyware wasn’t designed to attack. It’s the industry’s dirty little secret that if you’re still running Windows 98, you’re much less likely to have problems because hackers are too busy focusing on Windows XP. If you already have a newer system, you can still protect yourself by using a less common browser, like Firefox or Netscape.

Cost: can actually save you money.

Your frustration level: Really High

Solution: call in the Geek Squad

O.K., you’ve tried the free stuff and your computer’s still a mess. It’s time to stop banging your head against the desk and call in a pro. One option: the Geek Squad has agents on standby 24/7 (they don’t date), with “precincts” in most Best Buy stores. If you bring your PC into the store, they’ll zap the spyware for just $39, or they’ll scramble over to your home in a Geekmobile for $149.

Cost: $39 — $149

Your frustration level: Through the Roof

Solution: chuck it out the window

If all else fails, it might be time to heave that piece of junk right out the window — but hold on to your keyboard, mouse and screen. You can now buy a Mac Mini for just $630 ( and others). It doesn’t come with a keyboard, mouse or screen, but your old PC equipment should work fine as long as it uses USB connectors. Why make the switch? Because while there are somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 different spyware programs targeting Windows, security analysts have yet to identify a single piece of spyware aimed at the Mac.

Cost: $630