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Be careful when you search for a program to download. You may get what you are looking for, plus a lot of extra trashy programs that will eventually give you a big headache. Here's what to look for to avoid aggravation.

Lately, in helping people around town with their computers, I've seen a lot of computers with programs like MyPCBackup and PC Speed Maximizer. I've also seen a bunch of unusual toolbars like Babylon, Funmoods, Search.us, and Rally. When I asked people if they installed these programs, they inevitably said that they did not install them and didn't know where they came from.

My advice to everyone has always been, "Look at the screen carefully" and "Be careful where you click." Yet being in a hurry the other day, I almost made the mistake of not following my own advice. I caught myself just before my little finger pressed on the mouse button when trying to install the free Firefox browser. I had simply typed "Firefox" into the Google search box and was ready to click on the first result when I realized that would be a costly mistake. A light bulb went off in my brain as I instantly realized that this was exactly what was happening to others who were unintentionally filling their computers with unwanted programs.


Here is the result of my Google search for Firefox.

The first two selections are Mozilla-firefox.ez-download.com and Mozilla-firefox.gol-apps.com. These both seem like the perfect place to go to download Firefox. They are not. They will download Firefox, but will also download several unwanted programs, as well. If you look carefully, you will see that both of these choices are marked with a yellow rectangle with the word "Ad" on it. These are paid advertisements. They are from companies who make their money by tricking people into downloading extra programs. These extra programs are usually not viruses, but they are often aggravating programs that pop up constantly. Some even ask you for money. The anti-malware industry has taken to calling these programs PUPs, for Potentially Unwanted Programs. Since they are not technically viruses, many antivirus programs allow you to download them without a warning.

I was ready to click on the first choice when I realized that it was an ad and was not the real Mozilla Firefox download site. The real site is actually the third choice, www.mozilla.org. The ads come first, then the real search results. So I can see how many people fall for this ruse.

This situation has become very common. You will see the same type of misleading ads when you search for other free programs like Safari, Chrome, and Adobe Reader. When you click on the ads that appear at the top of the screen, you are taken to a download site which has the logo of the product you are looking for. The download page usually looks very real, but if you look at that page carefully you will, in most cases, find a disclaimer. For instance, the EZ-Download site mentioned above in the Firefox example says in small print at the bottom of the page, "EZ-Download is in no way associated with Firefox."

Some of these download sites give you a chance to deselect the programs that you don't want during the installation, others do not. Even when you choose the real download site, free programs sometimes download additional programs and toolbars, change your home pages, and/or change your search engine. For instance, when installing Java, you will be presented with pre-checked choices to install the Ask toolbar and to change your search engine to Ask. If you do not uncheck these boxes during installation the Ask toolbar and search engine will be installed even if you don't really want it.

Most people have a tendency to go through the download and installation pages very quickly, simply clicking on "next" without reading what is actually on the page. People pay the price when they have to try to remove all the PUPs and junk that they have inadvertently downloaded to their computer. Removing those programs can actually take hours, when really consciously screening the Google results pages and looking carefully at the download and installation screens will only take minutes.

So my advice is that when downloading and installing any applications you always need to slow down and be thoughtful. Check to make sure that you are not clicking on an ad. Read what is on the screen carefully. Those of you who remember the 59th Street Bridge Song, Feeling Groovy can use the lyrics of that song to remind them to be careful. Simon & Garfunkel sang, "Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last." When downloading software, your song should be "Slow down, you move too fast. You've got to be careful or your computer will get trashed."