If the performance on your PC or laptop hasn't been up to speed lately, it's probably because your machine is infected with spyware. In doing the reporting for an upcoming BUILDER magazine story on spyware, it became clear that home builders could use some help.

Builders are not computer people by nature, and with business so busy this year, it's understandable that the spyware plague infecting the computer industry may not be on the average builder's radar screen. One custom builder in Texas had his business come to a screeching halt when spyware infected his three home office PCs. Another builder in Michigan scrapped a couple of machines and bought two new PCs because the computers were so infected with spyware. And a third builder in South Carolina didn't think he had a problem, but when he ran an anti-spyware program, he discovered the machine had 68 spyware "hits."

The message is clear: Spyware is a threat to all industries and home PC users, and home builders are not immune. If anything, builders are more at risk, since so many builders don't always put computers issues on the front burner.

The Gartner Group, a consulting firm, defines spyware as software that spies on a user's Web activities through a combination of cookies, files and processes that are placed on a user PC through a browser. The spyware reports this information back to Internet sites and often interferes with the user's overall browsing experience. There are numerous cases where spyware so thoroughly infects a user PC that the machine becomes unusable or even unfixable.

Larger builders are using more expensive, server-based URL filters from Websense and SurfControl. The server-based products are geared for companies with 50 users or more and cost several thousand dollars. But the average builder running a small company with a handful of PCs does have options. The best defense is to take these five proactive steps while your PCs are still running smoothly.

Download anti-spyware programs on your PC. The two widely recommended sharewares are Spybot Search and Destroy and Ad-Aware. Another good program is Webroot's Spy Sweeper, which costs $29.95. Visit www.webroot.com for information. Quick note: Spybot has enhanced services like analyzers and updates, but asks for donations from users. Ad-Aware sells Ad-Aware SE Professional for $39.95.

Use at least two anti-spyware programs. As of now, the people distributing spyware on the Internet are winning, so you have to act accordingly. The best bet is to use at least two anti-spyware programs. My recommendation is to spend the money on Spy Sweeper or SE Professional and use one of the free shareware programs. Run each program at least once a week.

Ask your technology person about remote maintenance. Since many home builders are small, very busy owner/operators and find all of this tech stuff a major annoyance, ask your local IT consultants if they will do remote maintenance of your systems. Most tech shops have a service where they will clean out the spyware and do routine PC maintenance.

Start using an alternative browser. Many of the spyware attacks exploit vulnerabilities in Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Check out the free browsers at www.mozilla.com or www.opera.com, or just go back to using Netscape's browser. Don't try to uninstall Internet Explorer if that's your main browser, because it's so tightly coupled to the Windows desktop operating system. Just launch the new browser from your desktop.

Proceed with caution. There's a lot of questionable, so-called "rogue" anti-spyware software out there -- even software that in certain cases has been known to release spyware attacks. If you're not sure about a product, visit www.spywarewarrior.com/rogue_anti-spyware.htm. The Web site has a list of anti-spyware to avoid and better yet, lists the most reputable anti-spyware software.

More information on spyware will appear in BUILDER magazine's February issue.