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Spyware might be the most aptly-named kind of software in computing. It’s any program that sneaks onto your computer covertly and snoops on your private information without you knowing. Just like a real-life spy.
Typical spyware doesn’t carry out James Bond-style espionage, though. It’s there to steal your information for the author’s ill-gotten gain.
You don’t want spyware in your life. So it’s worthwhile to learn what spyware is, what can happen when your computer is infected, and how to remove it.
Spyware comes in many varieties
Since the term “spyware” covers any program that covertly steals your information, its effects are diverse and numerous. Common examples include:
Theft of personal information – Spyware has been known to track and transmit everything from credit card details and login credentials to chat sessions. The information might then be used in identity theft and fraud.
Targeted advertising – The software tracks websites you visit and reports the information back to a third party, which uses the data to deliver relevant ad impressions. If these features are incorporated in adware, the software itself might deliver unwanted pop-up advertisements on your screen.
Affiliate fraud – Affiliate marketers and networks have been subject to attack from spyware, which replaced genuine affiliates’ IDs with IDs belonging to the spyware owner. The result is that the spyware owner receives the revenue for the affiliate marketer’s hard work.
How spyware can infect your computer
Spyware generally differs from viruses and worms in that it doesn’t try to transmit itself from one computer to another. Infection usually occurs via:
- Bundling with other software, which users are deceived into downloading and installing
- Security vulnerabilities in web browsers and other software, which are exploited by malicious websites that users are tricked into visiting
- Trojan horses hidden in email attachments and other downloads, which users are duped into believing are legitimate files
Rootkit technologies: Once a piece of spyware has infected your computer, it will usually use rootkit technologies to hide itself. This makes it more difficult to detect and remove.
Disabling security: On Windows systems, users commonly become infected while using an account with administrator privileges. This enables the spyware to also run with administrator privileges, giving it full access the system. The spyware might then disable firewalls and anti-virus software, opening the door for further infections and preventing automatic removal of the spyware.
Signs your computer might be infected
Sluggish system: Computers often run more slowly after being infected with spyware. This is because spyware uses system resources, which would usually be available to other programs, to track and transmit your personal information.
Unwanted pop-up ads: When spyware is combined with adware, it can flood your screen with ads. If you’re getting a lot of pop-ups for no apparent reason, your computer is probably infected.
Unwanted web page and search redirects: Some spyware, like the infamous CoolWebSearch, can hijack your browser and control your home page and search results. If your browser seems to have gone haywire, spyware is the likely cause.
How to remove spyware
Although spyware differs from a virus in how it spreads and what it does, spyware removal involves mostly the same steps. Use system tools like Windows Defender or your anti-virus software to detect and remove it. And prevent infection by being cautious with web downloads and email attachments.