What is Spyware and How Does it Work?

  • By David Lukic
  • Dec 15, 2020

What is Spyware? A Spyware is a variety of different programs classified as malware, which allows someone to monitor and track your activity on a computer or mobile device. Spyware is also used to steal data like account logins, credit card information, bank account numbers, and other personal details that can be used for fraud or identity theft.

Computer Spyware is typically installed and used without the victim’s consent. It may be as simple as a jealous spouse spying on their loved one or a malicious hacker trying to get into your bank account. Sometimes these fraudsters steal information to sell on the dark web or to advertisers and other database warehouses for marketing purposes.

Some of the more dangerous strains of spyware may even alter the settings on your device, making it more vulnerable to other types of viruses or malware.

What Are the Different Types of Spyware?

According to Norton Antivirus, there are typically four different types of spyware.

Adware - this type of spyware has been around for many years. After it is installed on your computer or device, it tracks your browser activity. Then it redirects you to ads based on your history and preferences. In some cases, it will start popping up ads when you open the browser and can slow down and disable your computer altogether. The objective of this type is to get you to click and buy something or redirect you to another malicious website and trick you into providing credit card numbers or other personal data.

Trojans - these are seriously malicious programs. Trojans often pretend to be legitimate software, or they get piggybacked onto real software which then infects your computer. These are controlled by hackers and third parties and often come bundled with freeware. Keystroke loggers would fall into this category so criminals could monitor and steal your login passwords.

Tracking Cookies - everyone has heard of cookies. Cookies track your searches, your web browser activity, and downloads and use that information to market goods and services to you based on your history.

System Monitors - perhaps the most dangerous of all is system monitors. Once these pieces of software get onto your system, they can monitor everything you do, take control of your files and settings and record keystrokes, read emails, see websites you have visited, and take over your computer (ransomware) until you pay a fee to release it. 


How Does Spyware Work?

Spyware affects all different operating systems, including Mac, iOS, Windows, and Android. However, the Windows operating system is much more vulnerable to computer spywares. Unlike other types of malware, spyware requires the user to take an action that installs it. Therefore, it is very preventable. Some of the ways your computer or device may get infected are:

  • You click on a prompt or pop-up without reading it or knowing where it came from.
  • Downloading freeware or other software from an untrusted source.
  • Opening emails from spammers or downloading attachments. 
  • Clicking a link inside an email that takes you to a malicious website where your computer is infected.
  • Sharing files on a pirated media swapping site.  
  • Clicking on an ad that looks legitimate but actually infects your computer.
  • You install a browser add-on. Many of these are valid, but some are merely spyware.

Another way hackers trick you, is to pop-up a message saying you have malware on your computer, and you need to install some software to fix it. That software is actually the spyware virus and will not fix anything.

Spyware runs in the background, so you probably won’t notice it at first until your system starts to slow down. Some variants will change the home page setting of your browser, so you go to another malicious website by default when you open it. It can also control your search results so that you won’t see the actual Google pages, but pages the spyware wants you to see.

The most malicious forms of spyware can use your computer to send emails, download files, and even make expensive phone calls.

Even though there are new laws restricting fraudsters from installing software on your device without your permission, they are hard to enforce and prove.

Computer Spyware

How to Prevent Spyware?

Thankfully, most types of spyware can be prevented, and they are easy to detect. Typically, a spyware attack slows down your computer or mobile phone because it uses up a lot of resources. If you notice that your device is acting strangely (programs or apps opening when you don’t want them to), this might be an indication that you have  computer spywares running. Other signs that you might have spyware on your device are:

  • Your system crashes frequently.
  • You start running out of hard drive space.
  • You see a lot of pop-ups.
  • Unusual behavior on your mobile device or computer.

Some ways to prevent getting spyware on your machine are:

  • Never download or install software from an untrusted source.
  • Do not click links or open attachments in emails, ever.
  • Be very careful about clicking on ads in social media, some are fraudulent.
  • Keep all your devices protected with reputable antivirus/anti-malware software.
  • Do not install any browser add-ons unless you know the publisher.
  • Stay clear of apps that aren’t approved by Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store.
  • Don’t “root” or “jailbreak” your mobile device, it makes them more vulnerable to attacks.

How to Remove Spyware from Your Computer or Mobile Device?

If you find that you have become a victim of spyware, you can take steps to remove it. Preventing spyware is easier than cleaning it, but after you do remove it, you’ll know how to stay safe in the future.

  • Install and run strong anti-malware software. This should find and clean most of it. CSO Online recommends using “SUPERAntiSpyware, Malwarebytes, Avast Free Antivirus, AVG AntiVirus, Adaware, Trend Micro HouseCall, SpywareBlaster, and SpyBot Search & Destroy.”
  • Use a pop-up blocker to prevent unwanted messages in your browser.
If you find that neither of these options works, you may have to factory reset your device or computer and restore it from a backup. Keep your computer and mobile devices backed up at all times for these types of instances. 
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