EarthLink finds spyware running amok

Survey of 3 million Web users' machines finds 83 million instances of malicious programs.

The average Internet-enabled PC hosts 26 spyware programs, according to an audit by EarthLink.

The Internet service provider worked with security company Webroot's software to scan consumer PCs, surveying more than 3 million systems between January and September. The study found 83 million instances of spyware, a sign of increasing bombardment by malicious software.

Spying on spyware has reviews of antivirus and filtering software that tackle spyware infections, and CNET's Spyware Center offers information--and free programs--to address the problem.

Spyware programs hide in PCs and secretly monitor user activity. Typically, spyware arrives bundled with freeware or shareware, or through e-mail or instant messages. The programs are difficult to remove and may cause computers to run slowly or even crash.

At times, they can even be dangerous because some pop-up programs can steal passwords. Last month, California's legislature passed an antispyware bill that bans unauthorized installation of spyware on unsuspecting computer users.

"Spyware remains a serious problem for consumers. But the upside is that consumer awareness of the threats posed by spyware is rising," David Moll, CEO of Webroot, said in a statement.

EarthLink distributes free copies of antispyware software such as its SpyAudit and Spyware Blocker and Webroot's Spy Sweeper to its customers.

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