My one-time colleague Andrew Brandt, a former tech journalist now working for Webroot, a security vendor, warns that the practice of stealth bundling is becoming all too common. A number of companies make a living by striking deals with vendors and tricking user into downloading all sorts of junk.
For example, you may see a big button on a Web site that looks like it will play a video when you click it. When you do, it brings up a cheesy flash animation that says you need a particular codec to run it. If you say okay, you'll go through a number of confusing steps and wind up with a copy of Real Player as well as a codec (an application that lets you play video) on your PC. Real Player has its good points, but it also winds up creating a lot of system-slowing traffic by frequently grabbing information from the Web and pushing it to you.
Generally you can defend yourself by paying attention before you download anything. In particular, says Brandt, look at the fine print and various boxes that are usually checked by default, meaning you've agreed to something you may not like at all.
2. Get a better look at your PC's processes
Brandt suggests downloading a free program from Microsoft called Process Explorer, which is, as he puts it, "is like Task Manager" but stronger. I tried it and it works well, showing you what processes are running, a little bit about what they do, and how much memory and CPU power they are taking up. The program gives you the option to kill the process and related stuff it has spawned, a really handy feature that will help you spot junk you didn't know was there. Be warned though: You want to be careful about anything from Microsoft, because killing Windows-related processes can cause serious problems.
3. Learn how to control your anti-virus programs
Because the anti-virus makers are sure you need them hovering like Tiger Moms, all sorts of stuff is turned on by default in these programs. Fortunately, many of the programs have controls that let you adjust what they're doing - if you can find them.
Webroot, for example, has a "gamer mode" that turns off a lot of the checking it normally does. If you think Webroot is getting in the way, just pretend you're a gamer. You will, of course, lose some of the protection you're paying for, but thats the kind of tradeoff adults should think about.