Question of the week: “How do I get this stupid Sweetpacks off my computer?! It’s driving me crazy!”
This question didn’t come from an AVAST email, a support ticket, or even our Facebook page. It came directly from my mother as we were talking on the phone one day. Believe me, when you work for a security software company, you better have an answer for your mother! Thankfully, I do.
It’s avast! Browser Cleanup.
Most toolbars and smiley things are unnecessary and may even cause slowdowns or unexpected crashes. Technically, toolbars are not a threat so most antivirus products won’t flag them as potentially malicious, but since they are annoying and unwanted, you can use avast! Browser Cleanup to activate/deactivate installed toolbars.
Open the avast! Antivirus dashboard, and click on the tools icon (it looks like a wrench and screwdriver). Open Browser Cleanup and click start. It will scan for toolbars with a bad reputation and give you the option to remove them.
avast! Browser Cleanup removes unwanted toolbars from Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox ,and Internet Explorer. It is integrated in all avast! antivirus security products, and is also available as a stand-alone product on various download portals for use by friends without avast! installed.
Heavy duty browser cleaning
Since the avast! Browser Cleanup tool was launched in February 2013, it has removed 125 million unwanted toolbars from AVAST users’ computers. That’s more than 10 million toolbars zapped each month.
Toolbars typically inhabit the horizontal space below your browser and include buttons, icons, and menus that give you an easy way to select functions on the desktop, in applications or the browser. In some cases, they can be quite useful, but avast! users have rated only 4.2% of toolbars as “good” or “useful.”
avast! Browser Cleanup has identified 10 million different toolbars in the database, and avast! users have rated most of those as “bad.” The Sweetpacks toolbar, and millions like it, received that rating because they change your home page and search engine into their own. Toolbars often install a hidden background program for “updates,” but it really prevents you from resetting your homepage and search engine back to the ones of your choice. Worse yet, this service makes sure that the toolbar gets reinstalled if you try to remove it.
Our infographic shows you which toolbars avast! users have rated the top “bad” ones and the companies that supply them. You may notice that some vendors show up more than once with a different product. Renaming products is a shady practice used to trick people.
“Roughly 7 million out of the 10.2 million toolbars in our database are polymorphic – which means they have a varying and almost unreadable name,” said Thomas Salomon, head of AVAST Software ‘s German Software Development team. “Companies use this naming strategy to confuse people, and make it difficult to remove the annoying toolbars.”
You can see some of the variants in a previous blog post.
Another dirty trick vendors use is to name a toolbar after a well-known and respected product – kind of a smoke-and-mirrors approach.
“For a couple of months now, the vendors of annoying toolbars have been using another dirty trick: They name their own bad add-ons with the good name of well-rated and useful add-ons and thus use this good reputation to ‘hide’ their own crap,” explains Salomon.
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We received a message from a customer informing us that when she installed avast! Free Antivirus, she also got an unwelcome toolbar installed from Conduit. After an investigation, we found that there are some shady characters providing our popular free antivirus protection with unwanted toolbars and other scams. Thomas Salomon, head of AVAST Software ‘s German Software Development team, looked into it further.
Today I was informed that some download portals have wrapped our avast! Free Antivirus with their own installer using our logos and brand name without even asking. From past experience, I know that this typically causes a lot of trouble and annoys users. So I thought to myself: OK, let’s be “John Doe” and test it out.
Unfortunately the experience I had was even worse than expected…
First, I needed to think how a typical user would download avast! Free Antivirus. I guessed that it might be to simply type “avast download” into the search engine of his choice. I used Google in this case, and it came up with our own (avast) download page on top and some ads in the right column. These ads looked suspicious to me, but it’s possible that some users would be convinced to download avast! from these sites. One click later, I ended up at a site called softm8.com. I quickly spotted and clicked the avast! download option. Interestingly, the download was pretty small – actually too small to be an official avast! Antivirus installer. Anyway, I continued in my role as “John Doe” and ran the installer.
The experience begins
After starting the downloaded file it took a second or two for Windows to check the signature. Next, I noticed that the program I just downloaded was not issued by AVAST Software but by a company called “AVSoftware EOOD”. This is definitely not us:
Ideally, this small piece of information would give someone the first hint that the software is not what he expects, therefore he should probably abort the download. For the experiment’s sake, I continued by clicking “Run.” As a result, I ended up in a non-AVAST installer: