What You Need to Know About
Spyware, the Alexa Toolbar,
Free Software, & Anti-spyware Programs

How the Alexa Toolbar Created Havoc
with Internet Explorer and My Whole System

First published in 2004; updated April 2011
See also: Reader Mail  and Alexa's Response

by Barbara Brabec

When I got involved on the Web in 2000 and moved from a DOS computer to Windows 98, I had no idea that I would eventually be spending more time coping with Internet and computer problems than I would actually be working on my business. Until I switched from using Windows 98 to Windows XP, I seemed to spend at half of every working day at the computer weeding out junk mail, downloading patches for Microsoft products, and trying to solve my latest computer problem. Like everyone else, I still have to trouble-shoot one computer problem after another, but for the most part they're easier to fix these days.

For a long time, I didnít realize I might be creating some of my computer problems myself. Take free software, for example. Why do you think so many companies want to give us free software? They do it only because they know they will get something back if we accept their offer. In this case, "free" comes with extra baggage, such as advertising banners that we can get rid of only by upgrading to the professional paid edition of the software. Free programs also come with spyware, baggage most of us can't get rid of without the help of anti-spyware software. As I have learned from experience, some spyware can run quite a lot behind the scenes, causing one's system resources to be lowered.

I learned from Smart Computing magazine that spyware is usually planted on our computer systems without our knowledge. It may arrive as a malicious e-mail attachment or be hidden within a commercial, freeware, or shareware application weíve installed. As one of my computer pals explained in my early days on the Web, "The big problem with spyware is that it usually isn't something you know about. Someone hypes a free program or system, you use it, and they never tell you that instead of charging you they are transmitting (selling) your data to other companies for use in their advertising campaigns. The creators of these free programs include banner ads or tracking devices that give advertisers information about your surfing statistics, in exchange for using the program for free. That way, they still get paid for the program--not by you, but by advertisers who purchase your site statistics."

Downloading a free software program doesnít usually affect the way our computer systems operate, but you may have noticed that all End User License Agreements (EULAs) specifically state that the manufacturer wonít be held responsible if problems do occur. Iím not suggesting that we stop downloading free software; only that we pay more attention to the company offering the software, and what weíre agreeing to in the user license. These agreements are always so long and boring that we seldom take time to read them before clicking "I accept." If  we did, we might discern the providerís ulterior motives.

My Costly ALEXA Toolbar Experience

If youíve been invited to download the Alexa toolbar, I suggest you consider passing on this particular freebie. While looking for new affiliate programs to add to my site three years ago, I stumbled across the "Alexa Associate" toolbar offer that told me I could earn affiliate income through their association with Amazon.com simply by encouraging others to download this free toolbar from my site. When my visitors did that, my affiliate code would go with their download, and every time they used their Alexa toolbar to search Amazon.com in the future, I would get a commission on any purchases they made. Since I was an Amazon.com affiliate at that time, I thought this sounded like a good deal, so I downloaded the toolbar and was planning to add it to my site when, all of a sudden, I began to have serious problems with Internet Explorer.

Every time I had more than one browser window open and tried to close it, IE would lock up, often making it impossible for me to exit other programs as well. I kept getting messages that my system resources were too low to open a program--something I've never had a problem with before. And, in most cases, I couldnít reboot or shut down and was forced, several times, to just press the shut-off button. After doing all the usual things, such as defragging, checking for viruses, cleaning out old temporary files, dumping cookies, etc., I called Gateway (the computer I was using at that time) for assistance. As usual, their pat answer was, "Youíll have to reformat your hard drive and reload Internet Explorer." I told them they might as well stick a knife in my heart because I didnít have the time or energy to do that then (or ever).

After downloading the free Opera browser so I could continue my work on the Web, I called an online computer repair service for help. After checking my whole system and finding nothing wrong, they told me to ignore Gatewayís advice and look instead for Registry problems or spyware that might be gumming up the works. They confirmed the advice given to me by a friend who suggested that I download the free version of Ad-Aware, an anti-spyware program that scans oneís hard drive system for files, cookies, and other spyware that may have been planted while surfing the Web or downloading files. 

At that time, I was using Norton Antivirus and AVG for virus checking, and running Ad Aware once a month, usually at the same time I did a major full computer backup. It always turned up objects on my computer even when I hadn't downloaded any new programs or opened any email attachments, so I figured I must have picked up these things from from Web sites I had visited."

Until I ran the first Ad-Aware scan on my computer and turned up 150 "objects" that had been planted there, it didnít dawn on me that my problems with Internet Explorer had begun only after I had downloaded the Alexa toolbar. Alexa describes itself as a free search and navigation companion that accompanies you as you surf, providing useful information about the sites you visit without interrupting your Web browsing. Since it implants itself on the Internet Explorer toolbar, youíd think it would work okay with this browser, but in my case it caused serious problems. Of the 150 objects discovered by the Ad- Aware scan, 46 were Rootkey files planted in my Registry by Alexa--and all of these "files" were transmitting data back to Alexa about my Web-surfing habits.

Curiously, when I had tried earlier to remove the Alexa program from my system using the add/removal tool in my control panel, I got a message saying a certain file couldnít be found, so I couldnít delete the program. But the program finally disappeared from view after Ad-Aware removed all the Alexa-planted Rootkey files from my registry, along with all the other unwanted spyware files and cookies planted there by others. That took care of my Internet Explorer problem.

At the time I was having this problem, there was a lot of discussion on Internet forums in 2004 about IE crashes. Now there are more than a million pages on this topic, and the article you're reading now comes up No. One on Google. (Just Google "Internet Explorer crashes" to turn them up, and add "Alexa" to the keywords for different pages. See below for some pages I found of interest when I originally posted this article.) At this time, I didn't find any evidence that the Alexa Toolbar was crashing IE; all I knew for sure was that my computer problems started only after I downloaded this toolbar, and disappeared as soon as I got rid of it. 

If you like the Alexa toolbar and want to push it on others, be my guest. I'd like to generate extra income, but this is one affiliate program I'm not going to push on MY readers because I don't like to be spied on and I'm sure they don't, either. More important, if this caused my IE problems, it may be a problem for other computer users, too.

2011 UPDATE

In 2011, I started using CA eTrust Internet Security Suite to protect my computer. It includes superior anti-virus, anti-spam, and anti-spyware protection, plus a personal firewall that was a real pain in the neck to "train," but proved to be effective. I stopped using Norton's software after Norton SystemWorks crashed my Gateway computer, and after publishing that article, I began to get messages from many others who had experienced the same problem.)

At the time I posted this article in mid-2004 about my problems with Alexa's toolbar, I anticipated getting mail from some readers saying there was nothing wrong with the Alexa toolbar, that it was proving to be a profitable affiliate program for them, and that it couldn't possibly have been the reason for my problems with Internet Explorer and my system lockups. I did get some mail like this, but I also got reports from computer users who agreed with me, and I still continue to receive occasional reports today from computer users like Paul, who shared his Alexa toolbar experience with me in April 2011: 

"Thanks for your helpful articles on Alexa. I have been doing a lot of SEO work for the past few years. Each and every time I download the Alexa toolbar to help make it easier for me to view my Alexa ratings for the websites Iím working on, my computer mysteriously begins having unexplained IE crashes and failures to launch, so I uninstalled the Alexa toolbar as thoroughly as possible.

And then, just to confirm my previous suspicions, I downloaded the Alexa toolbar about three weeks ago on three of my work computers (different offices), and immediately began experiencing multiple crashes every day. So today when I used ComboFix.com to completely remove it from my computers, all the IE crashing stopped immediately.

I searched the web to see if anyone else was experiencing the same results with Alexa as I have had, and among other posts, I found yours. Itís surprising, however, that there is not a lot more chatter about the problems created by Alexa. Thanks again for your beneficial service and website!"

RELATED ARTICLES ON THE WEB: 

"Is Alexa Spying on You" at IMilly.com
More information about the Alexa Toolbar and how to remove it, from Kephyr.com
 

READ Feedback from Readers HERE.

Read Response from Alexa's Customer Service Dept.

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