What's a browser Hijacker?

This broad terms covers many times of applications that interfere with the normal operation of your browser. Most experts generally agree that browser hijackers are software programs or scripts that changes Internet Explorer settings; which generally means your home page will be changed and new favorites added to your own list of "Favorites". Some of these added favorites often point to porn sites or other sites with questionable content.  Most often this is done by altering keys in the Windows registry and often prevent you from changing your home page or removing the favorites that were added.

Hijackers may also make entries to the HOSTS file on your  Windows system. This special file directly maps Web URLs to IP addresses - so every time you type www.microsoft.com (for example) you might would redirected to the IP address of a sponsored search page, or pornography site instead.

But, we consider hijackers to be more than just what is described in the preceding paragraph; we believe that any program you install that alters the way you search the Web or changes your preferred choice of search engine is also a browser hijacker, because it alters the way you use you browser. Others might refer to those programs that alter your search behavior as "Search Engine Hijackers", but in reality they are actually forms of Browser Hijackers, in our opinion.

A newer, more clandestine browser hijacker has become popular lately. That is the type of hijacker that alters the searches you perform even when you use your preferred search engine. We call these Search Engine Manipulators (SEMs) and they too are a form of browser hijacker. SEMs re-arrange search results to make advertisements appear to be search results. While they are marked "paid advertisements" if you're not paying attention, you may not see this. Additionally, you might have to scroll down then entire page or even two pages to get to the actual search results. What these hijackers attempt to do is fool you into clicking an advertisement believing it to be part of the actual results from a search. When you click the company making the hijacker gets paid a few cents. It behooves the company that makes these types of hijackers to get their software installed on as many computers as possible because millions of installations means millions of dollars. To see an example of a SEM-type hijacker see this page showing Ask Jeeve's MyWebSearch (FunWebProducts/SmileyCentral) manipulating the results of a Google search. If you look carefully, you'll see "sponsored links" above the one and a half pages of advertisement you have to scroll through to get to the actual search results.

Other types of  browser hijackers may deny to certain web pages, for example the site of an anti-spyware software manufacturer  or an anti-virus software maker. Some hijackers have also been known to disable anti-virus and anti-spyware software.

A common misconception is that most most browser hijackers take advantage of Internet Explorer's ability to run ActiveX scripts straight from a web page. However, this is not true. Most hijackers take advantage of the desire for people to believe that big companies will give them something that is truly free. If these companies can convince the visitor that they're product is safe, then they can get them to download and install the hijacker voluntarily. And that, not Internet Explorer's Active-X, is how the vast majority of browser hijackers (and adware/spyware) get installed. We understand that FunWebProducts/SmileyCentral (Ask Jeeves) even has a Firefox flavor now. If true, this is especially troubling since the common misconception is that Firefox is the "safe browser".

Rarely these days do mainstream hijackers use security holes within Internet Explorer to install themselves automatically without any user interaction at all. Whiles some experts, decidedly anti-Microsoft experts, would have you believe that spyware, adware and browser hijackers are being installed by the millions because of "security holes" in Internet Explorer, this is simply not true. The truth is that security holes that allow the installation of this type of software are virtually non-existent in Windows XP SP2. Furthermore, 95% of all hijackers and spyware/adware are installed because people want to install them. Either the hijacker (or adware/spyware) is buried in some other desirable software (bundling) or the company that makes the hijacker (or adware/spyware) has been clever enough to trick the user into believe the software is safe and free from adware/spyware or hijackers.

The way to avoid hijackers is the same way we recommend avoiding spyware and adware. Use common sense. Use the right tools. Tools like WinPatrol (free version available here) and/or Spyware Blaster can warn you before you install a hijacker. Tools like Spybot Search & Destroy (free version available here) and SpySweeper (our #1 choice - free time-limited trial available here).

Use the right tools help you, but use your common sense first. Your common sense will tell you when something just doesn't seem right. Listen to that little voice in your head. It's the best protection you have on the Web.

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