Picture by Ocular Invasion
Way back in '06 one of my first blog posts was a review of Crossloop, a free and awesomely user-friendly remote desktop application for Windows. Ever since then I've made sure to install it on any Windows machine I might ever have to provide support for, and today it saved my bacon yet again.
A few years ago, we bought a new laptop for Liz's mom. She's pretty computer-savvy, but since she was used to Outlook Express and Word we didn't want to switch her over to OS X, so it was an XP machine. I did the standard things to secure it; made certain automatic updates were running, bought McAfee, made Firefox the default browser. It doesn't look like that's enough any more, since yesterday a trojan slipped through and she was bombarded with bogus anti-spyware popups whenever she did anything on the machine. She knew something wasn't kosher and gave us a call to find out what she should do.
The description made my heart sink. In the past I'd ended up spending 12 hours straight getting a stubborn piece of spyware off Liz's old laptop, and her mom lives over 1000 miles away in Wisconsin. Since my Windows knowledge is way out-of-date I put a call out to Twitter for software suggestions, and got the usual high quality of advice. The top pick was Spybot Search and Destroy, with 'nuke the machine and reinstall' a strong second! I tend to do the latter for my personal machines, since even OS X gets pretty unpredictable if you keep doing incremental updates over multiple OS revisions, but I didn't relish doing that remotely and getting the software she needs re-setup as well.
This afternoon I bit the bullet, got on a phone call to Wisconsin and started on the process. The first step was getting the remote desktop sharing working. It took about 15 minutes to figure out that the old version of Crossloop on her machine wouldn't allow a connection to my newer one, but once that was clear I talked her through downloading the latest from the website, and we were up-and-running. Incidentally one of the killer features of Crossloop is the complete lack of configuration, all she had to do was read off a 12 digit number and I was able to connect and take control.
Next, I set out to squash the spyware. I downloaded Spybot, did a little bit of head-scratching over the options, and started the scan. It was pretty slow, taking about 30 minutes to complete. Once that completed, I clicked on the fix problems button, and things got confusing. The Spybot registry watcher kept asking for confirmation about registry changes the Spybot scanner was making, and since there were several hundred this rapidly became a problem. I turned off the registry watcher, and it claimed to have fixed the issues it had uncovered. Unfortunately the spyware popup windows still kept appearing, so I made sure that the definitions were updated and ran another scan. After another 30 minute scan, it detected a different set of problems, fixed them, but still didn't squash the spyware.
At that point I did the research I should have done at the start, figured out this particular malware was named XP Internet Security 2010, and found a good blog post explaining how to remove it manually. I created and ran the suggested .reg file, and then downloaded the free version of Malwarebytes Anti-Malware. It took about 8 minutes to run a quick scan, and then it successfully removed the spyware!
After doing a little dance of joy, I looked through the settings to see if there was anything else I could do to protect the machine in the future. With McAfee, auto-updates and now Spybot's running protection, the only other recommendation I could think of was manually running Anti-Malware's scan every week.
As depressing as the spyware problem is (and yes, we'll be getting her a Mac next time), I'm amazed by the quality and workmanship of the free solutions out there. For all the black hats who waste our time and try to steal our money, there's dedicated folks like the Crossloop, Spybot and Malwarebytes teams offering free tools to help us fight back. Thanks to them all, I guess it's time to show my appreciation in the most sincere way, by upgrading to the paid versions!