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Spyware 101: How to Protect Your Privacy Online


Spyware 101: How to Protect Your Privacy Online

The term spyware harks back to earlier days on the Internet. Popularized in the early 2000’s, spyware describes malicious software that sits on your computer and collects information about your behavior online, tracking things like what sites you visit, what passwords you enter, what email addresses you use, and more. Typically this information is then used to either scam you or get access to your personal accounts without your awareness.

Unfortunately, although the term spyware seems dated, it’s still a very real threat more than a decade after the term was widely in use.

What is Spyware?

Spyware is software designed to track your activities or otherwise spy on you without your consent. Some of the more common forms of spyware include keyloggers, trojans, system monitors and tracking cookies. Unlike other viruses, which are often designed to spread rapidly from one computer to the next, most spyware is traditionally designed to find its way onto your machine quietly and stay there for an extended period of time tracking your behavior.  It is software that is designed to invade your privacy persistently and very, very effectively.

Spyware gathers your personal information by collecting information like your keystrokes, taking pictures of your screen, logging passwords, internet browsing history, and sometimes even credit card information. Spyware is more malicious than its cousin, adware, and is typically less destructive than a full virus or cyber attack. What makes it different from its relatives is that spyware is sneaky, operating in the background and often not even getting noticed by those affected.

How do you Get Spyware?

What makes spyware especially problematic is that it is often designed to mimic, or attach itself to, software programs that look innocent and that are widely-used. Perhaps the most common way people end up infected with spyware is by clicking on an untrustworthy link, or downloading an email attachment that downloads and runs the malware. It can also come hidden in the terms of service agreements of some “free” softwares. Always read carefully before agreeing to a download or install from a service you have any reason to doubt. Sometimes spyware can even make its way onto your system like adware does- via a drive-by download, where the simple act of visiting a page can initiate the download process.

One popular tactic that spyware creators have used in the past is to include spyware in programs that offer to speed up your PC. There are programs like registry cleaners and even anti-malware programs that are actually used to install spyware instead. That’s why you should always pay close attention to where you are downloading software, and what pieces of software you choose are equally important. If the name of the product you are downloading is misspelled, or the product page is confusing and has things like “Free Download” written all over it, you might want to look closely to ensure you are downloading reputable software. When in doubt, go directly to the website of the company that created the product you are looking to install. Don’t download from a link you don’t recognize or from third-party software download sites.

How to Tell if You’ve Been Infected- and How to Get Rid of it!

If the spyware on your system is functioning “properly” you won’t notice it’s there. However, there are a few telltale signs that your system is bloated with spyware. If your computer is running slower than usual, if your credit cards are repeatedly compromised, you find your computer running programs you didn’t initiate, or you have reason to suspect you have spyware, you should take action to remove it.

Make sure you get a powerful malware removal and cybersecurity program, and run a full scan; removing anything the program detects. And always look for programs from reputable companies like Malwarebytes, McAfee, Norton and others. After that, change all of your important passwords and where possible, enable two-factor authentication, to make it more difficult for scammers to get your information. If you suspect any bank, credit card, or financial information has been compromised, contact your bank or credit card company to report possible fraud. If you suspect something more serious has been obtained by the hackers, like sensitive photos, videos, audio, or major financial information, you may also consider contacting local law-enforcement. These cases are extreme however, and you should be sure you have been affected before involving the police.

How to Protect Yourself

Just because you’ve accidentally downloaded something you suspect to be spyware, doesn’t mean it’s game over for your personal info! If you see a file extension “.exe” and you don’t remember where it came from, or if you have any reason to doubt its authenticity, do not open it. Another good way to protect yourself from the potential harm of spyware is by opening credit cards with good fraud detection- they are adept at identifying the warning signs of fraud, and will shut your card down before the criminal is able to do much damage.

Ad blocking software can keep a good amount of the drive-by download style spyware installers off of your screen in the first place, so having a solid ad blocker and a reliable browser is a good way to prevent spyware in the first place. Finally, a robust cybersecurity and malware removal software is the most powerful way to keep yourself protected from spyware. Make sure the software is from a reputable source, research reviews for it, and run regular scans to make sure you’re protected. Spyware is an insidious, and often undetected part of the malware family, make sure you keep yourself and your information safe. Browse safer, faster, and more reliably with uBlock.