What Is Spyware and How Can I Protect Myself Against It in 2018

Aviva Zacks
Posted: October 31, 2018

Spyware may be one of the most dangerous infections your computer can contract. These frustrating infections can integrate into your operating system, editing your settings and decreasing device performance as it goes. In some cases, it’s even been known to turn off antivirus programs, making it impossible to detect and resolve.
Studies show that nearly 90% of U.S. home computers have contracted a spyware infection at some time. In most cases, failing to take action may result in nothing more than an ongoing annoyance. Other spyware infections can be disastrous, causing heavy financial burdens and ongoing stress.

What is Spyware?

Spyware is a type of computer infection that transports your data back to its creator. Software of this kind has many uses, some of which are legal, such as:

  • Monitoring company computers to ensure no one is spreading sensitive information
  • User-consented tracking for targeted advertising
  • Parental control software to track children’s online activity
  • Website cookies to customize your browsing experience

Unfortunately, most spyware falls into a more malicious category. It’s regularly used by criminals to steal personal information from their victims for financial gain.

Common spyware activity includes:

  • Farming your bank details for direct access to your money
  • Intercepting personal information, such as contacts, passwords, and web activity
  • Collecting enough personal data to steal your identity
  • Recording your browsing habits to send you personalized ads

Spyware has even been known to record instant messages and Skype calls, hijack your webcam, and take photos and videos.

From these examples, it’s clear that the level of threat varies. Studies have shown that:

  • 60% of spyware poses a minor threat, such as those used for targeted advertising
  • 25% poses a medium threat, like recording your computer’s IP address and hostname
  • 15% poses a severe threat, including stealing your passwords and other sensitive information

Spotting a Spyware Infection

Spyware can be a particularly tricky infection as it can change security settings to avoid detection. If you experience any of the following red flags, you might be infected:

  • Pop-up ads suddenly start appearing all over your computer
  • Device speed slows considerably
  • Your computer begins to freeze or crash more than normal
  • There is a drastic increase in CPU usage
  • Default browser page changes and redirects to another site
  • Antivirus or security software begins to malfunction
  • Increase in auto-redirects when online

While each of these factors individually may not mean anything, experiencing multiple issues is a sure sign of a problem.

How Did I Get Spyware?

Spyware can arrive via many channels. However, the most common source is piggybacking freeware. We’re all guilty of downloading free apps to do minor jobs for us online. If these aren’t properly vetted and reviewed, it can cause an infection.

Other ways to contract spyware include:

  • Clicking on infected ads
  • Visiting infected domains
  • Opening email attachments from unknown senders
  • Downloading from video and file-sharing platforms

Protect Yourself from Spyware

As the nature of malware develops, no foolproof tactic will keep you safe indefinitely. Instead, change many of your personal habits. Follow these rules to reduce the chance of a spyware attack:

Never click on unsolicited ads

A vast percentage of online ads contain infections. Avoid clicking on any to reduce the risk. If you see something you’re interested in buying, do a search for the item/brand instead.

Read reviews before downloading software

Downloading apps comes with significant risk, so research them carefully before downloading. Most trusted products come with reviews.

Adjust your browser security settings

Browsers contain a range of security settings that allow you to dictate how your data is used. You can choose to stop cookies completely, authorize them for specific sites, or set allowances to only share some information.

Engage in smart browsing

Never open an email attachment or message from someone you don’t know; if you see a suspicious link from a friend, confirm it before you click. Any pop up claiming you’ve won $1,000,000 or an iPad should never be trusted.

Avoid accidentally clicking pop-ups when closing them

Many infected ads make it difficult to close them. They might use a fraudulent ‘x’ in their design, which tricks you into clicking instead of closing. Be vigilant when shutting down pop-ups to avoid opening the link them by mistake.

Educate your family about the risks

If you have young children, it’s essential they understand the risks. When surveyed, 69% of computers in homes with children under the age of 18 had spyware. Young people tend to be less risk-aware, so educate them accordingly.

Use an antivirus security suite with an anti-spyware tool

Opt for a security suite with a dedicated anti-spyware tool that provides real-time monitoring, specific detection, and removal options for spyware. Currently, 38% of home computers lack any spyware protection.

While it’s preferable to stay ahead of spyware and avoid disaster, sometimes infection will happen. Don’t panic—it can be resolved easily if you act fast!

See our picks for the best antiviruses on the market!

How to Remove Spyware

If you realize you’ve been infected by spyware then the first step is to turn off your internet connection. The infection will send your data back via the web, so this puts an immediate stop to the process. Afterward, you have two options:

Remove Using Software

  • Use a top-quality antivirus and perform a full system scan
  • If you already know where the infection is located, you can opt for a custom scan to target a specific area
  • Once you have identified the problem, use an anti-spyware tool to automatically delete and remove the malware

Remove Manually

If you know the source of the problem, you can remove it by hand. Open up your application menu to view all of the active programs. Identify the app that is causing the problem, right click, and choose to “uninstall” and “delete” the program.

Be aware that manual removal does come with risks. If you choose the wrong program, you could make your computer inoperable. Many unknown files may actually be part of the operating system, so do a search for the name before deleting it completely.

Prevent Spyware & Protect Your Data

Spyware can range from a minor annoyance to a severe security threat but it’s not worth the risk to find out. Instead, be vigilant and protect yourself. Follow these steps to prevent spyware and, if you are infected, remove it quickly and efficiently.

About the Author

Aviva Zacks
Aviva Zacks

Aviva Zacks is a content manager, writer, editor, and really good baker. When she's not working, she enjoys reading on her porch swing with a cup of decaf.