Spyware Senders Taken Down

The Federal Trade Commission shut down a U.S. spyware operation and affiliate that were supposedly sneaking troublesome tracking software onto PCs under the guise of ringtones, free lyrics and browser upgrades.

The FTC said three individuals operating out of California under the name Enternet Media, and the affiliate operator of Iwebtunes, were charged with unfair and deceptive practices in violation of the FTC Act. The Commission said it was seeking a permanent ban on the practices and redress for consumers caught by the spyware and adware that tracked Internet activity, changed settings, installed other software and pop-up ads, and generally fouled up infected computers.

Alleging that the spyware interfered with consumers’ PCs and was difficult to remove, the FTC said it had frozen the organizations’ assets with the help of a U.S. District Court.

“The FTC will seek to bar the deceptive and unfair practices permanently and require the operators to give up their ill-gotten gains,” said a Commission statement.

Criminal Clicks

The FTC said in its complaint against the companies and individuals that their Web sites caused installation boxes to come up on consumers’ screens. Offering freeware, music files, ringtones, photographs, wallpaper, song lyrics and bogus security alarms, the sites actually delivered spyware infections to those who clicked, the FTC said.

The agency said the software tracked users’ Internet activity, inserted toolbars onto browsers, triggered pop-up ads and interfered with computer performance. The malware was also described as difficult for consumers to uninstall or remove.

The FTC, which encouraged consumer input on the case with a link and phone number on its Web site, advised consumers to follow steps to prevent spyware, including: update their operating systems and browser software; regularly use antivirus, anti-spyware and firewall programs; avoid free downloads from unfamiliar or untrusted sites; and refrain from clicking inside pop-up windows or in spam.

Turning Point

Webroot Vice President of threat research Richard Stiennon, whose anti-spyware company helped in the FTC investigation along with Google and Microsoft, told TechNewsWorld that, although the FTC aggressively pursued spammers and has gone after “kids” for sending other malware such as adware and spyware, the latest shutdown represents action against a significant sender of the sneaky code.

“This is, I think, the turning point in the battle against adware,” he said.

Stiennon, who highlighted that the FTC was able to take the action with existing authority and legal means, said the FTC crackdown and potential new legislation has spyware/adware senders in a predicament.

“They’ve been scrambling all year to change the way their products behave,” he said.

Bad for Business

Although he could not discuss Webroot’s collaboration on the matter in detail, Stiennon said the primary research tool used by investigators was Webroot’s latest State of Spyware report, an analysis of the impact of spyware on consumers and corporations.

Stiennon said there are other U.S. spyware operations that are getting put on notice by the FTC’s action, indicating they may be run out of the country and out of business as legislators get more aggressive on spyware.

“The identifiable entities in the United States are all going to go out of business,” he said. “They can’t survive if they comply with legislation.”

Stiennon added that, while operations outside the U.S., which have a closer tie to information and identity theft, may still be operating, the government action may portend more international efforts against spyware, something which has already occurred with spam.

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