What is Adware and How Does It Work

  • By David Lukic
  • Nov 18, 2020

Let us start by defining what adware is. It’s short for “Advertising-supported software,” and is an unwanted software designed to throw advertisements up on your screen.”

Adware is malicious software programs designed to track your online activities and serve up ads to you. These infections can redirect your browser or inject through pop-ups on your computer. Some particularly malicious adware can automatically install other forms of malware and breach your privacy.

Hackers use adware to earn money through user clicks and fraudulent use of pay-per-click advertising. Adware is a member of the spyware category of viruses, but the good news is, it’s easy to find and remove by adware detectors.

History of Adware

Adware has been around from the beginning, with the first adware programs invading computers in the mid-1990s. Previously unmonetized websites became flooded by adware as developers saw an opportunity to cash in.

The early days didn’t recognize adware as separate from spyware. It was assumed that any program running “behind the scenes” was spying on the user for illegal and nefarious purposes. The distinction with adware is that it can be legal…but usually isn’t.

From the beginning, adware was installed through unethical or borderline illegal means, even by legitimate businesses. Companies often failed to vet vendors and would distribute malware disguised as adware. The programs would spread advertisements and install destructive programs creating peer-to-peer networks (botnets) or allowing browser takeover.

Adware continuously grew until the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stepped in and imposed hefty fines. These penalties pushed most large, legitimate businesses out of the industry as the reputational damage and cost weren’t worth the benefits.

Today, the stigma against adware has undoubtedly grown. Most view the programs as “potentially unwanted programs” or “PUPs.” AdBlock services have greatly diminished adware’s power, as many browsers can distinguish between adware and legitimate advertising.

However, it’s not only computers that must be wary anymore. The majority of Americans own more than one device, and mobile security awareness is shockingly low. 

Is Adware Legal?

what is adware

The legality of adware depends primarily on how it gets on a device. Programs installed without the user’s knowledge or consent are usually illegal. The same is true if the adware noticeably worsens the user’s browsing experience or damages other aspects of the device it’s installed on.

Sometimes, the adware is illegal even with the user’s consent. This includes times when adware is installed through vague, manipulative, or unnecessarily difficult language.

Additionally, while not all adware spies on the user, some passively collect user data. This type of adware does its best to fly under the radar while slowly sending back users’ personal information to marketers or malicious actors.

In summary, while adware is not necessarily illegal, its use may be subject to various laws and regulations. Users should be cautious when installing software to ensure they understand what they agree to.

How Your Computer Gets Infected with Adware

Adware purveyors are sneaky devils who don’t offer up their software as an option. Instead, they piggyback it on a freeware program or other software that you do want, download, and then install. Along with your software comes the adware. Another way you might get adware on your computer is through an infected website. Although adware isn’t as damaging as malware or other malicious programs, it does compromise your online privacy by tracking your online whereabouts to customize the ads you see. When the adware is bundled in with legitimate software, the more sophisticated developers make it, so you have to turn off pop-up blockers, or the program won’t run properly.

Some adware programs are more invasive than others. A few of them even stop your antivirus software from working. Depending on the developer, others may also direct you to malicious websites where other malware and trojans are installed on your computer just by visiting the site. This practice is called drive-by downloading.

Torrenting or using other potentially unsafe freeware programs to share files and software hacks and cracks is another way adware perpetrators get you to install it without knowing it. These programs are bundled into the file share or sketchy VPN program used to veil your activities.

What Can Malicious Adware Do to Your Device?

First, adware generally changes the home page in your browser. So if you usually opened Firefox, Safari, or Edge and went to Google.com to search, you may now land on a page offering you miraculous weight-loss products, get rich quick schemes, or other impossible to turn down opportunities. All of this is designed to make you click a link.

Adware can also inject bogus results onto a search page when you browse the Internet. These ads look just like normal banners on the page. Again, this is devised to redirect you from your intended destination and take you to sites where you have to click a link.

Adware has been around for many years, and often you aren’t even aware your computer is infected until you visit a site, and suddenly dozens of new browser windows open up and pop-ups that you can’t keep up with. That behavior is a strong indication of an adware infection.

Although adware is not as dangerous as other viruses, they can present a vulnerability through which other hackers can access your computer. They can also slow down your machine and browsing experience.

Ads work, and that is why the majority of hackers today still use adware as a source of revenue.

Types of Adware

There are several different types of adware. Each one changes how it presents ads or how it hides from the user's eyes. Here are a few of the most common types of adware used by both malicious and legitimate sources:

Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUPs)

Potentially unwanted programs aren't strictly illegal. They're bundled and hidden within legitimate programs. This combination toes the legal line since the user downloaded it willingly but didn't read the entire user agreement regarding data collection and security.

Legal problems appear when PUPs start to damage the user experience. Overt pop-ups can slow down browsers or make the websites significantly harder to navigate. If your computer grows sluggish, it may indicate that spyware was included in your most recent download.

Adware, cookie trackers, and extra browser toolbars are examples of unwanted programs.

Abusive Adware

Think of abusive adware as that friend who won't stop recommending things to you. They'll call, text, or send a carrier pigeon to your house if it gets the point across. They're not trying to hurt you, but they excessively get in your face and lower your quality of life.

Abusive adware works the same way. It constantly allows pop-ups and fills every available banner space. These programs are commonly packaged with browser toolbars, which are ironically designed to improve the user experience.

Deceptive Adware

Any adware that tries to trick people into downloading it falls into this group. Developers often use methods that allow for plausible deniability, like not updating an expired offer or making the uninstallation process too complicated.

Some states find deceptive adware legal as long as no malware is included. However, adware can automatically download malware from other sources or aid in other forms of cybercrime.

Malicious Adware

Malicious adware is always illegal, even with the user's consent. They are designed to spread malicious programs like trojans, worms, spyware, and keyloggers to other devices.

Unknown downloads can start by clicking on an adware banner, or the malware could be hidden directly in the code. Illegal adware operations are known for using aggressive methods and aren’t connected to more front-facing businesses. 

Legitimate Adware

Legitimate adware typically involves some mutual give-and-take. Developers offer an enticing promotion to users that download their adware. The developers earn money off the adware, which offsets the promotion's cost.

This method is similar to how free mobile games operate. Free games allow players to watch advertisements in exchange for in-game perks. Players understand they're trading their time for an otherwise paid benefit. Legitimate adware will also enable users to opt out of data collection, differentiating them from shadier sources.

How to Recognize Adware

how to prevent adware

An increase or change in advertisements doesn't always mean adware has compromised your device. Marketers may have updated your profile and changed how they approach you, or the site owner could have changed their strategy.

However, regularly checking your computer for adware is still a good idea. If you suspect an infection, look for one or more of these signs:

  • Your device or internet browser is running slowly.
  • Advertisements are popping up on previously "clean" websites.
  • Your browser settings have changed without your knowledge.
  • A download begins without you initiating it.
  • Programs on your machine suddenly crash.
  • Your device's temperature rises while performing ordinary tasks.

How to Get Rid of Adware and Clean up Your Computer

Some of these adware programs disguise themselves as browser add-ons or toolbars. Be careful of installing anything into your browser that you aren’t fully aware of or want.

  • Always keep your computer updated with the latest antivirus software, which supports all types of malware, spyware, adware, and ransomware. Run deep scans often.
  • Keep an eye out for odd browser behavior and ads. If you don’t see what you expect when you run a search, you may be infected.
  • Only download and use programs from trusted sources. If you do install a pirated or freeware program, understand the risks that it is probably tangled with something you don’t want.
  • When installing any program, carefully review the user agreement and, if possible, deselect the install of any additional applications.
  • Be on the lookout for any suspicious pop-ups that warn you to update your software or alert you to infections that do not come from your antivirus software. These are probably fraudulent ads designed to make you click.
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