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What is Spyware and How to Protect Yourself from It?

Ronald Bushnell

IT business meeting

These days, many companies keep important documents and personal information stored online, rather than on paper in a file cabinet. While this approach is much more convenient than physical storage, it also comes with its own unique risks. Malicious software programs, or malware, can compromise your company’s security and put your secure information at risk. 

Spyware is one type of malware that can be particularly threatening. Spyware is designed to gather information from your computer or mobile device, which it can then sell to third parties and potentially harm your company. Let’s take a deeper look at what spyware does and how you can protect yourself from it. 

What Is Spyware And What Does It Do? 

Spyware is a type of software program that collects sensitive or valuable information from your device. The spyware program will then sell this information to third parties or even use it to conduct identity theft. 

Cybercrime is at a high point right now, as we are living so much of our lives online. In fact, cybercrime went up 600 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spyware is evolving to monitor even more of our online activity and work even more covertly. 

Spyware programs often start by looking at your online behavior – your browsing history, emails, keystrokes, and passwords. Some types of spyware can even get access to your camera and microphone. Mobile spyware may also look at your phone calls and SMS messages. It can use all of this information to gain access to your online accounts, which is one of the first steps of identity theft. 

Once a spyware program has your login credentials to secure accounts, it can use them to find things like credit card numbers and other bank account information. This puts you at risk of identity theft and can put your company in a very dangerous position as well. 

Spyware exploits security vulnerabilities in your system and in the apps that you download to make its way onto your device. Spyware can be very hard to identify because it often comes as part of another seemingly innocuous download. You might also find spyware on your device after opening an unsecured email or clicking on a suspicious advertisement. 

Examples of Spyware

Antivirus software and other digital security tools have become very sophisticated in recent years. This means that cybercriminals have had to become just as sophisticated to evade them. 

As a result, there are many different types of spyware out there, some of which are very difficult to catch if you aren’t looking for them. Each type of spyware works differently, but they all have the same goal of collecting your personal information. Here are some of the most common types of spyware. 

  • Trojan spyware. Trojan spyware programs look like legitimate pieces of software, but hide spyware features in their software or require you to download an extra spyware program.
  • Banking trojans. This is a specific type of trojan that is designed to collect banking information. With so many people conducting their banking online these days, these trojans are able to exploit vulnerabilities in your browser security. 
  • Adware. Adware displays a large volume of ads on your computer with the intent of collecting your personal information. These ads can show up as pop-ups on your desktop or banner ads in your web browser. 
  • Keyloggers. This type of adware tracks all of your keystrokes and browsing habits for malicious purposes. 
  • Tracking cookies. This type of spyware comes from malicious websites. They plant tracking cookies on their website which will start to follow you after you’ve interacted with that site. These cookies can follow all of your online activity and use that information to cause harm.

Symptoms of Spyware

Because spyware infections are so sneaky, it can be difficult to find them once they’ve made their way onto your computer. Understanding the most common symptoms of spyware is very important for protecting your personal information. The sooner you can catch spyware on your device, the quicker you can remove it and ensure that your personal information is safe. 

Here are some of the most common symptoms of spyware. If you notice any of these symptoms on your computer, smartphone, or tablet, you’ll want to take security measures right away to neutralize any potential threats. 

  • Unwanted search engine results. When conducting web searches, the spyware may alter the results or direct you to a different page altogether. 
  • Inability to access certain websites. Some secure websites will block traffic from devices with spyware infections. They can also redirect any of your web traffic at any point.  
  • Device running slowly. Spyware slows your system down significantly, causing a noticeable lag. You may also notice that the battery dies much faster than normal or that you’re running out of memory space. 
  • Constant pop-up ads. If you’ve noticed a huge influx of pop-up ads on your computer, you could have adware. Adware can also place advertisements on websites that wouldn’t normally have them. 
  • New browser home page. Spyware programs will often change your browser’s homepage and make it difficult for you to change it back. 
  • Strange error messages. If you’re getting odd error messages that feel out of place on your device, they could be coming from your spyware. 
  • Device crashes more often than normal. Because spyware puts so much strain on your device, it can cause it to crash much more frequently than it normally would. 
  • New apps on your smartphone. If you notice apps on your phone that you didn’t download, it could be a sign of spyware on your phone. You might also notice strange charges on your cell phone bill from these apps.  
  • Strange noises during phone calls. If you hear clicking or beeping sounds that don’t have another explanation, it could be a sign that spyware on your phone is recording your calls. 
  • Strange transactions on your cards. One of the most dangerous consequences of having spyware on your device is identity theft. If you start noticing transactions on your bank statement that you didn’t make, it could have come from spyware. Luckily, most banks today have mechanisms in place to catch identity theft quickly. However, you should still make sure you cancel your cards and change your passwords as soon as this happens. In some cases, you may also need to contact law enforcement agencies. 

How To Stop Spyware

If you think you might have spyware on your device, it’s important to take steps to stop it right away. The first step is to conduct scans to see if there are any suspicious programs running on your device. Trustworthy internet security programs will have features designed to catch and remove spyware. You can also search for spyware manually by using the Task Manager on your computer. 

Once you’ve identified the spyware, you’ll need to use your security tool to remove it. After you’ve removed the spyware from the device, you may want to change your passwords, just in case any third parties have access to them. Additionally, you’ll want to check all of your bank accounts to make sure they haven’t been compromised. 

How To Avoid Spyware

While spyware can be very scary, there are steps that you can take to avoid it in the future. In general, it’s important to be very discerning while using the internet. Hackers and other cybercriminals have become very savvy in recent years, and the digital landscape is always changing. The more aware you are, the easier it is to protect yourself and your team. 

One of the first steps you should take is to install a security suite that you trust on your devices. Many security programs have features that will automatically scan and block any spyware you encounter. This makes it easier to avoid spyware if you aren’t good at catching it on your own. 

Here are some other helpful tips to keep spyware away from your computer and mobile phones. 

  • Be wary of free software programs and mobile apps. While there is nothing inherently wrong with free programs, many contain spyware and other forms of malware. Do your research before you commit to downloading. 
  • Be very cautious when opening attachments in emails and text messages, especially when they come from senders you do not know. 
  • Only accept cookies from sites that you trust. Most sites are required to ask you for cookies before collecting them, so don’t be afraid to say no if you’re feeling unsure. 
  • Keep all of your software programs updated. Updates can help fix vulnerabilities in the programs you use that could allow for hackers to make their way in. 

Spyware: Final Thoughts

Spyware and other forms of malware are so much more common than many people realize. While collecting small amounts of data may seem harmless at first, these programs can use all of this data to steal your identity or even sell it to third parties. Taking steps to protect all of your devices is a must, especially as we store so much of our personal information online.