Internet Explorer’s Little Helpers

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Last time we wrestled a problem with Yahoo!Toolbar and Internet Explorer to the ground. Once you find the problem it’s simple to solve: Just uninstall the toolbar. But how do you know what toolbars and other helpers you have? How do you prevent them from killing your Internet Explorer?

Browser Helper Objects & Active-X Controls
A Browser Helper Object (BHO) is a little piece of code that adds a function to Internet Explorer. One example is a search bar or tool bar. Yahoo! has one, as we know. Google has one. There are lots. Another example is the Adobe plugin that lets you read PDF files in your browser. BHO’s are not always bad, and not always unwanted.

ActiveX controls also add features or functionality to the browser. They’re just a little different “under the hood” but the result to us is the same: It might give you a calculator or “real time scoring” or a gadget in your browser. Like BHO’s ActiveX controls are not inherently bad. But, like BHO’s they can be dangerous if not properly managed.

Because of the way they are designed, BHO’s and ActiveX controls have complete access to Internet Explorer, and that is one way spyware and malware can get installed. Some are just better written than others, and the poorly written ones can cause Internet Explorer to crash. BHO’s and ActiveX controls were introduced with Internet Explorer version 4, and in response to the potential for bad things to happen, Microsoft introduced an easy way to control these “helpers” in Windows XP Service Pack 2.

Make it stop!
If you open your Internet Explorer and click on Tools, you’ll see a menu item called “Manage Add-ons…”. Click on that and you will see a list of all the helper objects, controls, toolbars, and extension currently in use. Use the dropdown menu to select “Add-ons that have been used…” and you’ll see a list of everything that’s ever been used by your browser. If you suspect an add-on is causing trouble, you can disable it, or update it. If you don’t know which item is causing you a problem, you can disable them all and re-enable them one by one until you find the problem. Make yourself a sandwich or a cup of coffee before you start that project. You’re going to need to reboot after you enable each one.

Sometimes it’s easy to get rid of a plugin. In the case of Yahoo! and Google toolbars, you can go to Start ~> Control Panel ~> Add/Remove Programs and uninstall the toolbars. Other plugins do not want to leave gracefully. I used Spybot Search&Destroy (the Tools ~> BHO settings) to get rid of ActiveX controls and unwanted BHO’s. There are some other, industrial strength removal tools available, or you might want to call in a professional.

What if I don’t want this stuff in the first place?
Most legitimate plugins will prompt you and ask if you want to install them. How does that happen? Well, you need to make sure your Internet Explorer is set up correctly. In Internet Explorer, click on Tools ~> Internet Options ~> Security. Moving the slider all the way up to “High” is as safe as it gets, but it will also disable some things that you do want. You can get around that by adding sites to the Trusted Zone. Moving it down to Medium will enable most of the things you might want and prompt you about others.

Please use common sense in responding to the prompts! If you are prompted to install software, just say no unless you know what it is you’re installing. If you are trying to get real time scoring and you are prompted to install a real time scoring application, that’s one thing. If you’re prompted to install something else --- a dialer, cursors, or something that you simply can’t identify --- ask yourself if you really, really want to take a chance.

I know I often mention Mozilla Firefox, which is a browsing alternative to Internet Explorer. I don’t mean to harp on it, but Firefox doesn’t use ActiveX technology. It’s just made in a different way, and it’s thought to be a much safer browsing experience. I can tell you that it’s a much friendlier experience with tabbed browsing and without all the pop-ups in Internet Explorer. The current version is They just released an upgrade last week.

I recommend to clients that they try Firefox for awhile, and see if they like it before they accept it as their default browser. You can use Firefox without getting rid of Internet Explorer. In fact, you can download a Firefox tool that will let you open the page you’re looking at in Internet Explorer in case you want to compare. It’s easy to bring all your Internet Explorer Favorites into Firefox if you want to, but not required.

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About the Author

The Technology Shaman, Cate Eales, has been helping people make online computing safe, accessible, and fun for over 30 years.

Cate lives in Kelowna with her husband, Eric. She owns and operates Computer Care Kelowna, a mobile computer business providing on-site service for home and small business customers.

Cate is here to help you and your home or business computer get along.

E-mail Cate at [email protected] with comments, suggestions, or questions.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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