WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Nine out of 10 Internet users say they have changed their online habits to avoid spyware and other Internet-based threats, according to a study released Wednesday.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that an overwhelming majority of Internet users have stopped opening questionable e-mail attachments, or taken other steps to avoid a plague of stealthy, unwanted programs that can disable computers or secretly monitor online activity.

Nearly half said they have stopped visiting particular Web sites that they suspect may deposit unwanted programs on their computers, while 25 percent say they have stopped downloading music or movies from "peer to peer" networks that may harbor spyware.

Eighteen percent said they had switched the type of Web browser they use in order to avoid spyware.

Spyware has emerged as a major headache for computer users over the last several years.

It can sap computing power, crash machines and bury users under a blizzard of unwanted ads. Scam artists use spyware to capture passwords, account numbers and other sensitive data. It can end up on users' computers through a virus or when they download games or other free programs from the Internet.

Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed said they had suffered slower performance or other problems that could be attributed to spyware. Other surveys have found the level of infection to be as high as 80 percent.

The nonprofit group surveyed 1,336 U.S. Internet users, between May 4 and June 7. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

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