• Stelios Katakalos

What is a PUP? How to find and remove unwanted programs

Malware, Trojans, Bugs – these very words strike fear in the heart of all of us, evoking images of lines of falling code, skulls and crossbones. These malicious programs are the filth of the Internet, the proof that with every useful technology there is an equal and opposite piece of garbage that at times could have adverse effects on your system.

A potentially unwanted program (PUP) is exactly what it sounds like; software that you may or may not want clogging up your system. PUPs are similar to malware in that they cause problems when downloaded and installed, but what makes a PUP different is that when you download one, you are doing it with your consent.

The term PUP was first coined as a means of defining this downloadable adware or crapware as something other than malicious software. PUPs often employ huge amounts of system resources and are a common cause of clunky operating systems, but are not considered malicious or harmful. However, they are often annoying, creating new toolbars in your web browser for shopping sites, changing your search provider from Google to Bing without reason, popping up ads constantly or giving you regular weather updates from Swaziland. Some are even aggressive by intentionally slowing down your computer to later sell you system-tuning or miracle speedup tools.

Why do PUPs exist? To earn revenue for software developers who are providing their software for “free”. For each successfully installed browser toolbar for example, a freeware maker earns about $2. Some PUPs exist just to make cash without ever providing anything useful to you.

So who benefits from PUPs?

Software vendors: the software vendor (seller) gets money from the PUP developers (creators of adware) for each install. We provide examples in this article.

Download portal: the download portal gets money for the PUPs they install through their installer (wrapper/bright green Download Now button). The software vendor is generally not involved or benefiting.

PUPs: with a bit of camaraderie, some PUPs work together to install each others products, and pay each other in the process.

Here’s where it get’s scary.

A recent development in PUPware is in the use of rootkits; an infection that hides itself, its own data and other files so that they cannot be seen by you or your operating system. Intercepting and receiving messages from your computer it redirects information and reports back to the mothership what ever it wants. The use of rootkits in adware is blurring the lines between merely unwanted junk, and active malware.

This can be seen even more clearly in a new PUP known as ‘Faster Internet’ which, once installed, will create a fingerprint of your computer. This information is then uploaded to the developer’s server with screenshots of the active display on your computer and sends this along with your IP address to it’s server. Bordering on spyware, this piece of adware is a blatant violation of your privacy.

But wait! I saw a pop-up that was trying to help me! Enter the interactive PUP, scaring the daylights out of poor Mr and Mrs Smith by displaying online advertisements that try to scam us into thinking that our computers have a serious problem. This is done to trick you into calling the listed support number so they can scare you further into buying their services.

Sadly, there are ever more and more ways to be infected and while Adware installers continue to have little or no law regulating them, developers will remain out of control.

PUPs and the antivirus industry

Terrifyingly, after big vendors such as Oracle (Java) and Microsoft (Bing and Skype) started bundling, ethics in the software industry seem to be lost completely, as even antivirus vendors have joined the game, bundling PUPs with their software. We researched practices among the freeware antivirus vendors and the results were troubling. We found that 7 out of 8 tested free antivirus suites were bundled with PUPs. See: Has the antivirus industry gone mad?

Emsisoft is anti-PUP

During the last few years, the threat landscape has shifted significantly. When the Emsisoft team checked the latest infection statistics we found that 3/4 of all findings of Emsisoft Anti-Malware today were PUP related. The number has increased massively during the past years.

But where there is a problem, there is also a solution. Emsisoft maintain high ethical standards that define how we approach all threats; always with our users in mind. While many antivirus products fail to detect even the most common PUPs -and in fact install PUPs themselves directly with their own products- Emsisoft is widely recognised for removing them efficiently.

So, to summarise:

  • PUPs want to make money off of you. The most common form is by hijacking your browser: they can then show you ads, monetize or sell your search and/or browser behavior or redirect your homepage.

  • PUPs use aggressive distribution methods to get on your computer: because in the large majority of the cases, you will not be aware that you are installing a PUP.

  • Most PUPs don’t have any significant value or advantages. PUP producers get around this by paying other software vendors or distributors such as download portals $$$ per new installation that they get them.

  • PUPs are often brought to you by freeware vendors: they frequently get on your computer bundled with a freeware program. While you’re installing program A, you also install one or more PUPs, often without knowing you did. The freeware vendor gets money from the PUP producer to do this.

Phew. So, now that you know what they are and how to get them, how do you avoid PUPs?

  • Be cautious, use common sense and take your time. Read carefully when installing anything. Don’t click accept until you are sure you are willing to install everything mentioned in the EULA (End User Licence Agreement.)

  • Only use reputable download sources such as the official site of the product you are downloading.

  • Avoid download portals and NEVER download or install applications that seem suspicious or malicious.

  • Install, update, and run a reputable antivirus software, such as Emsisoft Anti-Malware that offers real-time protection against PUPs.

  • Clean your computer periodically with the Free Emsisoft Emergency Kit.

source: Emsisoft

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