Jody Harnish of Everett was surprised enough when she switched on her computer and the home page she uses while browsing the Internet suddenly was replaced without her permission.
Then came pop-up ads warning that her computer was vulnerable and that she should buy a software product called Spy Wiper. Pop-up ads touting pornographic Web sites then began appearing regularly on the screen.
"My kids use this computer, so they were seeing this all the time," said Harnish, who has an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son.
It took some time for Harnish to realize what was going on, but she was the latest victim of an alarming online trend that has created headaches for other computer users and even spurred action in the U.S. Senate.
Harnish's computer was infected by a type of program most commonly known as "spyware," which can sneak into a computer with little or no warning. In some cases, the programs also can gather information about the computer user, such as what Web sites he or she visits.
Spyware programs, also known as adware, often are obtained through an e-mail virus or as a hidden add-on to a downloaded program and can be difficult to remove from a computer's hard drive.
The spyware that latched onto Harnish's computer -- she doesn't know how -- usually kicked in anytime she opened a second window with her browser, Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
"It seems to have a way to override just about anything you try to do," Harnish said while working on the computer earlier this week.
After posting an error message, a pop-up message warned that "spyware programmers can control your computer hardware if you fail to protect your computer right at this moment." The message ended with "Download Spy Wiper now!"
After that, subsequent pop-up ads, including ones for pornography sites, appeared. The process repeated itself each time Harnish tried to open a new browser window.
Fortunately, one of Harnish's online friends is a Dutch computer expert. From his home in the Netherlands, Jeroen van den Berg was able to get access to Harnish's machine and install an anti-spyware program. After several tries, he eradicated the problem by Tuesday.
Harnish's experience sounds familiar to Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an organization in Washington, D.C., concerned with online privacy issues.
"When we show people what it does, and what it can do, they're shocked," Schwartz said of spyware, ad ware and related nuisances. "Even if you say no several times, it changes your home page."
While it's just one of several companies trying to sell their anti-spyware software by installing files in users' computers, Spy Wiper has generated many complaints, Schwartz said. That's why his group filed a complaint last month against Spy Wiper's developer, Mail Wiper Inc., and an affiliated company, Seismic Entertainment Productions.
A spokeswoman at the FTC said the complaint "is under review."
Schwartz said the spyware connected to Mail Wiper, which is based in Atlanta, Ga., don't seem to gather information like some spyware and adware files.
"It seems to be more of an extortion case, where they're trying to get you to buy the software rather than monitoring where you're going." he said.
Mail Wiper did not respond to an e-mail from The Herald asking for a comment. A phone number found for Mail Wiper Inc. reaches a recording that urges users to e-mail the company. It does not allow callers to leave a message.
However Schwartz said Mail Wiper has told his organization that it's not responsible for the spyware.
With more people complaining about problems with spyware and other invasive programs, Congress also may take action.
The SPYBLOCK Act, introduced last week in the U.S. Senate, is in the committee stage. It would require companies to obtain consent before installing spyware, and it would require that such programs be easily removed. It also would outlaw programs whose primary intent is to cause harm.
In the short run, however, computer users should educate themselves and try to keep their computers as secure as possible, said Todd Hackett, owner of Sound Networking in Everett.
"It's going to get worse, not better," he said.
Harnish said this is the first big problem she's had in her years of using the Internet. She said she enjoys being online, chatting to faraway friends in Dutch and English.
"On the other hand, you get this, from people you don't even know," she said.
She also doesn't understand why a company such as Mail Wiper or its affiliates would use invasive tactics to sell their programs.
"There's no way I'd ever buy anything from them," Harnish said. "It's got to be the stupidest marketing campaign ever."
Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.