To many friends and a large portion of my family, I am tech support. They know, and I’m glad they do, that a call to me can sometimes solve their PC problem.
It’s not that I’m smart… I’m experienced. I’ve reinstalled operating systems, configured disk drives, modems and network cards and made dead machines come to life.
My own computer, the one I do most of my work for this site on, was designed and then built by me, on the floor in my upstairs office.
I love the challenge. There are so many ways to bust a system and so many ways to fix it (though only one or two work in any given situation).
Today, I received a call from some very good friends. They have a Gateway PC (Brand is actually quite inconsequential. Most systems are built from a finite set of motherboards and components) which went part way through its boot and then stopped. No icons on the desktop. No taskbar below. No reply to ctl-alt-del (which should bring up the task manager in Windows 98).
I assumed it was a corrupted registry. The registry is a list of customizations which tie programs to the operating system. Without the registry on a Windows machine, there is nothing.
I went to the Windows program which restores an old, non-corrupted registry, only to find it didn’t have enough memory to run. Gateway let this box leave the store with only 32 MB of RAM. Small then, ridiculous now.
I had a few memory sticks in my drawer and threw them in, raising the total from 32 to 160 MB. The registry program ran and I turned back the hands of time with an older, working version.
Reboot – a Windows tradition.
The machine came up, showed its icons and task bar and then a succession of programs began to load. What was in this machine?
It seems the owners had downloaded dozens of programs, each carrying spyware, malware or adware. Boxes were opening on the screen by themselves with ads. At one point, a full screen ad, full of links to other sites, appeared. There was no way to close it that a casual user would ever discover.
I quickly tried to download Adaware, a program made for dealing with this stuff, but the computer locked. I rebooted and tried again. Adaware ran for 3 hours while I went back to work and then returned. But, it wasn’t doing its job. The computer reported Adaware was not responding.
There have been reports of these rogue programs looking for Adaware and its siblings and shutting them down. That could be what happened here.
I switched to Spybot Search and Destroy. So far, it seems to have worked.
Still, there might be so much garbage embedded in this computer that, in the end, the only prudent decision will be to reformat the hard drive and start again.
I have never seen or even heard of a computer so infected with stuff that the owners never intended to put in… and I haven’t even done a virus scan yet!
Were there licenses and releases that were clicked but never read? Probably. Was some of this done by teenagers, who really don’t have the authority to enter into a contract? Probably there too.
The bottom line is, these programs are invasive in nearly every way and well hidden from the computer’s owners. They are probably legal, which is a shame. That means, these folks are going to have to get a lot more savvy and wary when dealing with their own computer.