PhotoThere's a lot of free software and apps out there that could come with some frustrating strings attached – if you aren't careful. They can result in your browser suddenly displaying a new home page or toolbar. They can even skew your search results.

They are called Potentially Unwanted Programs, or PUPs. They're unwanted even though you agreed to download them. You agreed because you may have been in a hurry and missed some fine print.

The term PUP was coined by McAfee Internet Security. The programs are not technically viruses but often behave like a virus. They can include spyware, adware and dialers. In most cases they get downloaded in the process of a consumer downloading a program they do, in fact, want.

Trying to sell stuff

PUPs are usually produced by marketing companies that use them to display advertising on the affected computers. These companies point out that all the information necessary to opt out of the PUP download is right there in the user agreement. However, the consumer must first read the information and then act. Many times, they overlook it.

PhotoInstead of an “opt in,” a PUP is always presented as an “opt out.” For example, when you are prompted to update Java on your PC, you might get a pop-up screen from Oracle during the process that says “We recommend installing the free browser add-on from Ask.

There are two checked boxes, one that says “Install the Ask toolbar in Google Chrome.” The other says “Set and keep Ask as my default search provider in Google Chrome.” Unless you uncheck those boxes, you will make those changes to your browser. It might be something that you would like and find useful, but it might not. The point is you have to pay attention during a download to make an informed decision.

When searching for a free download, such as Yahoo Messenger, the search results may offer a number of download sites that are not affiliated with or operated by Yahoo. In addition to downloading Messenger, you are likely to end up with a few PUPs if you aren't careful.

Matter of semantics

McAfee coined the term PUPs after marketing companies objected to being lumped in under the term “spyware.” But it may be just a matter of semantics.

“Today a significant number of programs are using aggressive marketing techniques, akin to those long employed by spammers, to create more intrusive and, the developers would say, more effective products and services,” McAfee says on its website. “The clear gap between malicious code written by anti-social teenagers and non-malicious code written by legitimate corporations is rapidly dwindling, where it exists at all. This aggressive marketing stance is even touted as “viral marketing,” a term perhaps more appropriate than intended. Viral marketing can be defined as using a consumer's resource to generate more interest than could be achieved by direct marketing, with or without the consumer's knowledge or consent.”

Some PUPs may be clearly malicious while others are not – they are simply unwanted. Malicious PUPs may modify your computer's system so that the code runs every time the computer starts up. It may hide its presence, making it harder to remove.

Hard to remove

PhotoWhen you download one of these programs they might be a chore to eliminate. An anti-virus scan may identify the PUPs and remove some of them. However, other elements may remain and be more difficult to remove. You should check the “help” section of your anti-virus vendor's website.

Of course, it's best to avoid PUPs in the first place. Remember that they are generally installed as bundles with a free program you want. You must remain alert to any opt-out messages during the installation.

You can also minimize your PUP exposure by making sure you are downloading your desired program only from a trusted site. If you are at the software provider's official download page your safety odds improve. Be leery of look-alike sites that might give you more than you bargained for.

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