What is Spyware? And How to Remove it in Minutes [2020 Update]
First developed as a marketing or usage aid to help website owners track their visitors, spyware has now become incredibly advanced and potentially much more threatening.
From invasive but mostly harmless advertising trackers to malicious system monitors, spyware comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be difficult to guard against or even discover in the first place.
In this guide we’re going to take a look at the different types of spyware, how you can tell if you’ve been infected, what to do if you have, and how you can protect yourself in the future.
What is Spyware?
Spyware is a type of software that is designed to collect information about its target. This can range from legitimate marketing trackers that are legally required to get your consent to track your browsing habits, to illegal software designed to infiltrate your device and steal your personal information.
When we talk about spyware, we’re usually talking about the second, more malicious kind. This spyware is a kind of malware, and aims to work its way on to your computer in order to gain access to sensitive information like passwords or banking details.
Modern-day spyware is extremely sophisticated and can gain access to your devices through a whole range of paths. Some spyware is hidden in downloads from unregulated sources, others can make their way on to your computer via software vulnerabilities like an insecure website.
Protecting yourself against spyware is a matter of knowing which browsing behaviors to avoid, using anti-spyware software, recognizing the different types of spyware, spotting the warning signs of infection, and knowing which is the best spyware remover to use if you do find malware on your device.
Types of Spyware
Spyware comes in many forms, ranging from legitimate to illegal to somewhere in between.
Here are the four main recognized types, ordered from least dangerous to most:
Regular cookies are small data files that are downloaded onto your browser by a website. They contain necessary information about your usage of that website, for example any settings you’ve used or passwords.
When you visit that website again, your browser will return the cookie to the web page. This informs the site that it is you returning. That way the website knows — for example — which settings to load or remembers that you’re already logged in so that you don’t have to reenter your password.
Tracking cookies work differently because they can be shared with other websites. This means they can track your movements from one site to another.
Tracking cookies are usually used for marketing, either to analyze the way you interact with a website or to keep track of your interests in order to show you targeted advertising.
While they aren’t malicious by design, tracking cookies do store a worrying amount of data about your private browsing habits. This can particularly be of concern if the cookies are being shared with a third party that might be vulnerable to breaches or a threat in itself.
Adware is a type of spyware that is usually downloaded by mistake, either because it has made itself look like legitimate software, or hidden itself in another download. Once on your device, adware is designed to track your browsing habits, location, and personal information in order to display advertising on your screen.
These adverts normally come in the form of annoying pop-ups, but they can also affect the behavior of your browser, slowing it down or making changes to settings without your authorization.
Adware pop-ups and intrusions can be annoying, but they also put you at risk of identity theft and fraud if the software creators sell your information to third parties.
Like adware, Trojans usually find their way onto your device by tricking you into accidentally downloading them. Once downloaded, they give their creator access to your device in several ways.
Some types of Trojans are designed to conceal themselves or other malicious downloads by preventing firewalls or anti-malware software from working properly. Other types are able to download additional software onto your device without you knowing.
Mostly though, Trojans are designed to harvest sensitive information from your computer. This includes browsing habits, personal identification data, and payment details such as banking logins and card numbers.
A system monitor is a type of Trojan that gives a hacker the ability to capture everything you do on your device. This can include monitoring your online behavior, logging your physical actions — such as keystrokes, accessing private chats and emails, taking screenshots, or recording anything else you do on your device.
This information is then used to steal personal data, private documents, banking information, or any other type of sensitive material on your computer.
How Do I Get Infected with Spyware?
Any device can be infected by spyware and, as we mentioned before, it’s pretty sophisticated when it comes to disguising itself or getting you to download it unintentionally.
The most common way to get infected is to download software from an untrusted source. This happens most often when downloading pirated material.
If the website you use to download this material or software is compromised or malicious itself, you put yourself at risk of downloading disguised spyware instead.
Alternatively, the software you are downloading might be legitimate but vulnerabilities in the website’s security may have allowed spyware to piggyback on the download.
Spyware can also download itself onto your system without you ever approving a download or even realizing you’ve been infected.
This can happen if you open an email attachment from an unknown source, click on a pop-up advert on a malicious website, or download an unverified app on your device.
Once installed on your device, spyware can be extremely difficult to spot. Some variations are even designed to change the settings on any anti-spyware software or firewalls you might use, to prevent their own detection.
However, there are a few key things to look out for that might indicate a spyware infection:
- If your browser or device seems unusually slow.
- Repeated crashes for seemingly no reason.
- Pop-ups that appear outside of your browser or when you’re offline.
- Any unexplained changes to your browser homepage.
- Being redirected to a different browser or a website you haven’t requested.
- If your device notifies you that you’re running out of hard drive space unexpectedly.
Of course, you may not be able to detect spyware at all. However, if you suspect you’ve been infected or you’ve carried out any online activity that might have left you vulnerable, it’s a good idea to download and run a spyware removal program.
How to Remove Spyware
The good news is, some of the best spyware removers are completely free.
Here are some of the most highly recommended free spyware removal programs:
- AVG Antivirus Free
- Adaware Antivirus
- Norton Power Eraser
- Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition
Once you’ve chosen the best spyware remover, you can run a full system scan. Any spyware on your device can then be identified and removed in minutes.
If spyware is detected by your spyware remover, it can also be a good idea to check in with your banking and email providers to make sure there’s been no unauthorized access.
How Do I Protect Myself From Spyware?
Downloading antivirus protection and a spyware remover is the first and best step you can take to protect yourself from spyware infection. An anti-spyware program will scan all of your incoming files and data for threats, preventing spyware from ever being downloaded in the first place.
However, there are some other measures you can take to protect yourself further:
- Use a VPN – While a VPN can’t prevent spyware from being downloaded onto your device, it can mask your location and prevent your online behavior from being tracked and monitored. The best VPNs also feature anti-malware and ad-blocking software. NordVPN is one of our highest recommended VPNs, and offers an innovative CyberSec feature that automatically blocks suspicious websites to keep you safe from infection.
- Use a more secure web browser – Internet Explorer is notoriously vulnerable to cyber threats. Alternative browsers such as Firefox or Google Chrome are designed to keep you more secure.
- Don’t trust emails from unknown senders – Unsolicited emails are one of the main ways hackers can get you to download spyware without realizing. Try not to open emails from suspicious-looking addresses, and never open any attachments or links from a sender you don’t know.
- Always download from a reputable source – If you’re downloading files or software, always make sure it’s from a trusted and secure website. This will go some way to preventing you from downloading spyware by accident.
- Never click on suspicious links or pop-ups – Sometimes, just clicking on an advert can be enough to give spyware access to your device. A good way to guard against this is to hover your mouse over the link or ad, and check the address that pops up in the bottom left hand of your screen. That way you can check the link is taking you to a legitimate website and not redirecting you towards a potential threat.
Conclusion and Further Reading
As spyware becomes ever more sophisticated and hard to detect, protecting against infection can seem tricky.
However, if you practice sensible online activity, use the best spyware removal and anti-spyware programs, and back up your anti-virus software by using a VPN, you should be able to stay safe.
Worried about being exposed to spyware when torrenting? Check out our rundown of the best VPNs that work with The Pirate Bay.
Or, want to find out how to stop adware in its tracks? Read our list of the best (and worst) ad blockers.