Stump the Geeks

Tools for fighting the war against pop-up ads

July 22, 2012 

Q. I somewhat recently started getting these pop-up windows showing a coupon is available for whatever site I’m using. Often I have to click it several times to get it to go away, only to have it reappear if I click to another page on that site.

As if that is not annoying enough, I am also getting “script running on this page” error popups, so I have to click those closed as well as the coupon ads themselves. These often appear many, many times while I am using a site.

I cannot figure out where these are coming from nor how to eliminate them for good. Any ideas?

I use Internet Explorer and Yahoo search tool.

S. Sanders, Fuquay-Varina, N.C.

Although most Web browsers are now equipped with pop-up blockers by default, there are still plenty of ways for obtrusive advertising to worm its way onto your screen. In a way, the programmers developing these protections are in an arms race with others working on clever ways to outsmart the system.

Most of these pop-ups aren’t harmful to your system – they’re just attempts by sites to make a little cash. But if you’re seeing the same kinds of messages pop up no matter where you surf, your computer could be infected with a virus or spyware.

Regular checks

First things first, though: Ditch the toolbar. IBM Distinguished Engineer and IT Security Architect Jeff Crume says these browser add-ons are often sources of spyware and other “features” that can affect the performance of your system. Browsers typically have a search bar built in already, so uninstalling those extras will reduce clutter and improve performance.

Your next step should be to make sure your antivirus software is updated and running.

In most cases however, antivirus software won’t detect problems with spyware, which you may have contracted unknowingly online. Crume suggests downloading and running tools like Spybot or Ad-Aware, both of which have free versions. They’ll be able to ferret out the offending scripts that run in the background of your browser and eliminate them. It’s also a good idea to perform this check regularly.

Free plug-ins

If the issue really is coming from the websites you’re visiting regularly, there are a number of free browser plug-ins to help you beef up the power of your stock pop-up blocker. But they may require a change of browsers.

Crume recommends NoScript for Firefox or AdBlock, which is available for Firefox and Google’s Chrome browser. Free extensions like these do come with caveats, however.

“NoScript provides additional security by preventing Web sites from automatically downloading things to your system, but can cause some sites not to render correctly,” Crume said in an email. “For those – assuming you trust them – you can configure NoScript to allowing scripting to run while blocking all others by default.”

Given how universally irritating users find it to be, I’m always surprised pop-up advertising still has a place on the Web. But with powerful tools that put the control back in your hands, you can suppress these interruptions without much technical know-how.

At least until the pop-up makers outsmart our solution again.

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