Even savvy internet users underestimate the dangers of spyware. Spyware secretly infiltrates computers to perform a range of illegal activities which could lead to data breaches, identity theft, fraud, extortion, and even threats to your physical safety.
Spyware is one of the most widespread security threats on the internet, and it’s almost ridiculously easy to get infected. The majority of these applications go undetected since spyware is designed to secretly run in the background without disrupting the user’s tasks.
1. WHAT IS SPYWARE?
Spyware is malware that has been engineered to gather information about the sites you visit, the emails you send and receive, the things you download, and especially usernames, passwords, personal information, and payment or credit card information.
2. WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SPYWARE?
- Password stealers harvest passwords from web browsers, software applications, and system logins. Passwords can be stored on the infected machine or transmitted to a remote server.
- Keyloggers or system monitors capture a user’s computer activity including keystrokes, emails, and search and browsing history. They also transmit captured images, audio, and video from the infected computer and other connected devices, for example, your phone. Sophisticated keyloggers can even intercept documents on connected printers. Keyloggers can be a massive security risk on networked computers in an office environment.
- Banking Trojans steal credentials from financial institutions and then manipulate browser vulnerabilities (bugs) to change web pages, alter transaction content, or execute additional transactions without anyone knowing.
- Infostealers are highly targeted applications that search for specific information. They collect system information, documents, media files, spreadsheets, email conversations, contact information, usernames and passwords, and browser history. Infostealers often have the same capabilities to exploit browser security vulnerabilities as banking trojans and can harvest personal data from forums or online services.
- Backdoors are quick-access tools and are planted ON YOUR COMPUTER to provide future access to your system.
3. HOW DO YOU GET SPYWARE?
Spyware is often marketed as fun, useful extras or freebies, and victims unwittingly install the spyware themselves when they accept the terms of a seemingly legitimate program without reading the full document.
- Deceptive claims
Human beings are curious by nature and love to try new tools. Spyware developers disguise their spyware as useful software such as hard disk cleaners, virus removal tools, computer or internet accelerators, or browser extensions. The spyware will remain on your computer to continue its work long after you’ve uninstalled the carrier of the infection.
- Freeware and software bundles
Bundleware often contains spyware. Once installation starts, additional components are triggered, and, likely, you’ll authorize the installation unknowingly when you accept the terms of service presented by the original application.
- Marketing scams
Criminals who specialize in identity theft may create fake companies and websites where they advertise a monitoring and protection service to protect you from fraud. If it’s a free service it means you are their next lunch.
- Malicious links and websites
There are thousands of websites where you can download applications, but most of these sites bury spyware in seemingly legitimate applications. Always search for the software company’s legitimate download page, and never download software from links in emails or messages.
4. HOW WILL I KNOW IF MY COMPUTER HAS BEEN INFECTED WITH SPYWARE?
You may never realize that your computer has been infected, and that’s why prevention is far better than cure. No one should operate a computer without a reputable antivirus such as Kaspersky, MalwareBytes, or BitDefender, that will automatically block spyware and viruses before they can auto-install on your computer.
If you suspect that your computer may have been infected you should aggressively scan and clean your computer with a reputable cybersecurity solution. Do not rely on a free or ‘light’ antivirus program. Sign up for a trial of a premium cybersecurity program, employ the full package on your computer, and get your digital affairs in order.
- If your computer or accounts have been breached, you should contact your bank and any other institutions that may have been affected.
- If you use your computer for work, you may be required by law to report a breach to law enforcement, and your company may need to make a public disclosure.
- If a breach involves sensitive images or personal information you may need to report potential violations of federal and state laws.
- Check your digital profile. Data aggregators collect information about individuals, which is handy when you need to find long-lost friends or family. Nuwber is one of the few that can also provide data from your social media accounts, plus scrape the deeper nooks and crannies of the internet. If you spot unusual activities (property records, marriages, etc.) you can do damage control.
5. HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF FROM SPYWARE?
The user is almost always the weakest link, and users who cultivate a watchful awareness (and a little cynicism) will fare better than the rest of the herd.
- Always use a reputable security solution with real-time protection. Spyware and malware are getting better every day. While the limited/free versions of antivirus technology are better than nothing, experts agree that paying for a full cybersecurity solution is the better option by far.
- Don’t open emails from unknown sources. Block remote content and use your mail client’s preview function.
- Always check the address of a link using the mouse-over function before clicking or opening.
- Never download documents or files from an unknown source.
6. THE WAY FORWARD
A generation has passed since the birth of the internet, and a whole new crop of brilliant programmers are now entering the internet and software industries. Inevitably, some will find the world of cybercrime attractive, and computer users of all ages and abilities will need to adapt to a much more robust digital landscape. Let’s be careful out there!