The people who call Dell Inc.'s customer service line often have no idea why their computers are running so slow. The ones who call America Online Inc. can't necessarily explain why Internet connections keep dropping. And those who file error reports with Microsoft Corp. don't always know why their computers inexplicably crash.
Sometimes, the company that gets the complaint is rightly to blame. But with alarming frequency, officials at these and other technology companies say they are tracing customer problems back to one culprit: spyware.
In the past year, spyware problems have become especially pernicious, leaving companies scrambling to respond to customers who don't necessarily realize they have spyware.
Companies are concerned about the cost of dealing with such calls. But perhaps more worrisome, they fear customers will wrongly blame them.
How spyware arrives
Spyware generally refers to programs that land on computers without their owners' knowledge. They can deliver hordes of pop-up ads, redirect people to unfamiliar search engines or, in rare cases, steal personal information.
Users most often get them by downloading free games or file-sharing software — and consenting to language buried deep within a licensing agreement.
And because they consented, "in some ways it ties our hands because we can't legally interfere," said Mike George, head of Dell's U.S. consumer business.
Russ Cooper, senior scientist with TruSecure Corp., said a longstanding fear of legal repercussions is likely one reason companies have only recently begun to address the problem.
But now that spyware has become epidemic, he believes Microsoft and other companies ought to do much more to educate the public — such as by running public-awareness commercials akin to the old Smokey Bear slogan "Only you can prevent forest fires." The industry's incentive is simple survival, Cooper said.
"It's almost ridiculous," said Bill Bane, 33, a derivatives trader in New York. "You buy a computer. It's new, bright and shiny and looks great and three months down the road, it's infested with spyware."
Though he recognizes he's partly to blame for his surfing habits, he believes his service provider and manufacturer share responsibility.
"Either the Internet providers figure out a way to clean up the Net or people are just going to pull the plug at home," Bane said. "It ain't worth it."
Microsoft officials blame unwanted software for up to one-third of application crashes on Windows XP computers. AOL estimates that just three such programs together cause some 300,000 Internet disconnections per day.
Forrester Research analyst Jonathan Penn said a spyware-related support call can cost $15 to $45, and companies may lose business.
"Security is a component of loyalty," Penn said. "People, they want all these various services, but they expect security to come with it."
Some companies have begun offering spyware-detection tools — Yahoo Inc.'s is free, while AOL and EarthLink Inc. limit key features to paid subscribers. Anti-spyware software that Hewlett-Packard Co. began shipping with new computers in June comes with a 30-day free trial; it's about $20 a year after that. Dell will have similar software by the holidays.
Most tools leave it to users to decide what to do with any programs found.
EarthLink's tool — and AOL's by default — will quarantine spyware without removing it completely. EarthLink spokesman Jerry Grasso said some users may decide that having spyware is worth the nuisance in exchange for the free program that came with it.
Microsoft's Service Pack 2 security upgrade for Windows XP warns users of spyware and other unexpected programs before they are loaded. (Microsoft and NBC are partners in MSNBC.) And the company plans spyware-specific tools to give users more control, said Paul Bryan, a director in the security, business and technology unit. He said it was too soon to say when they would be available.
Advertisers are responding, too. After using the criticized delivery methods for nearly two years, Verizon Communications Inc. suspended those campaigns in July.
"We realize it was being raised as a consumer issue," spokesman John Bonomo said. "We wanted to make sure we were keeping with the trust they place in us."