In the golden age of digital advertising, we’re constantly bombarded with ads, pop-ups, pop-overs, and video overlays as we browse the web.
While sometimes annoying, most of these ads are easily dismissed or ignored, and they’re often legitimate efforts by publishers to monetize their content.
Pop-up ads that won’t close, infinite pop ups, or full-screen takeovers from unscrupulous-looking ads are another story altogether, and could be a sign that your computer is infected with adware.
Here’s our guide to avoiding, identifying, and removing adware from your PC or Mac in 2019.
What is Adware, and How Is It Different from Malware?
Advertising malware, or adware, is any program unknowingly or unwittingly installed on your computer that’s designed to force ads into your web browsing experience.
Adware takes many different forms, but usually it:
- Displays pop up advertisements, usually for shady products or companies rather than legitimate brands
- Redirects your web activity to advertising websites
- Collects personal data to show you more targeted ads
It can also slow down your computer and web browser immensely, though that’s a side effect and usually not its main purpose.
Malware, more generally, is more malicious in nature than adware.
Malware, or what we commonly think of as “viruses,” can be used to:
- Extort money from the victim (ransomware)
- Disrupt normal computer functions and operation
- Steal personal information for fraud and identity theft purposes
Another key distinction worth noting is that adware is not generally illegal, though installing it on a user’s computer without their permission may be. Malware that harms a user’s computer, holds data and files for ransom, or steals personal information is unquestionably criminal.
Though adware and malware have different goals, they do share one common trait: They’re a headache for users and need to be dealt with swiftly.
A good ad blocking software or pop-up blocker may help alleviate the symptoms of adware, but if the adware is harvesting your information to show you personally-targeted ads, there’s no telling where that information might end up.
Signs Your Computer Is Infected with Adware
Adware can sometimes force advertisements into your screen as you run a program (like a game or tool) on your computer, but most commonly it takes the form of a “browser-hijacker” and focuses exclusively on your use of your web browser.
There are a few odd behaviors to look out for when browsing the web. Any of these might be a sign that your computer is infected:
- Your browser’s home page has changed unexpectedly
- Your browser crashes or slows down dramatically
- Trustworthy websites you visit frequently either redirect you to strange sites or suddenly start showing tons of intrusive ads
- Searches take you to an unfamiliar search engine results page
- New extensions and icons appear on your browser’s toolbar
- Normal-seeming pop up ads can not be closed
- Pop-up ads warn that your computer has a virus or needs a critical update
You’ll usually be able to tell when ads you’re seeing are more malicious and intrusive than usual.
Visiting a blog and seeing a few ads for brands you recognize usually isn’t a sign of adware.
When those ads multiply, take over your screen, can’t be closed, and forcibly redirect you to shady websites or NSFW content, you should be suspicious that your computer has had adware installed.
Can Macs Get Adware?
While Macs are commonly thought to be immune to viruses, malware, and adware, that’s unfortunately not the case.
Macs are less likely to get adware than PCs, that much is true.
Modern Mac operating systems have some solid built-in security measures like Xprotect, which prevents known malware from being opened, and Gatekeeper, which requires any program you try to install to have a verified signature from the creators.
But Macs can still be vulnerable to all different forms of malware and adware. Mac users, too, should be on high alert for signs their machine has been infected.
How Your Computer Gets Infected with Adware
There are two main ways Macs and PCs can become infected with adware
The first? You visited an unsecure website or a website that had been, itself, infected. The adware then used a vulnerability in your web browser to download and install itself onto your computer.
The second? You installed it yourself!
If you’ve recently downloaded a free software or a shareware program, these have often been secretly monetized with revenue earned via adware that accompanies the installation.
You may find a note buried in the user agreement of the software that explains the adware, or it may be hidden entirely. But in either case, downloaded programs from the Internet are often the culprit behind adware lurking on your machine.
How to Avoid Getting Adware
The easiest way to deal with adware is to avoid it in the first place
Sometimes, an adware download will be out of your control — for example, if a trustworthy website you visit frequently has been hacked or infected.
But there are a few precautionary steps you should take online to protect yourself and your computer:
- Be careful what you download (When downloading freeware or shareware, be sure to read user agreements to see if there’s a mention of adware or data-collecting software)
- Use a pop-up blocker to kill malicious or NSFW ads (You can easily do this in Google Chrome under Preferences -> Privacy -> Content Settings)
- Don’t click on shady or malicious looking ads
- Don’t visit untrustworthy or unfamiliar websites
- Run regular antivirus and adware scans
How to Detect & Remove Adware
Luckily, detection and removal of adware is relatively simple.
Adware is a lot less malicious than most other forms of malware and doesn’t evolve as quickly.
(Cyber criminals iterate on their viruses and adware extremely quickly to avoid detection.)
Most reputable antivirus softwares will be able to effectively find and eliminate adware from your machine, and may prevent it from ever installing in the first place.
You can see our list of the best antivirus software right here, including some free options for basic adware removal.