Adware Explained: How to Detect and Remove Adware

Adware is short for "advertising-supported software." At best, it's a nuisance that significantly slows down your computer and leads to crashes. At worst, it can lead to much worse problems for your device such as spyware attacks. In this article, learn what adware is so you can know how to prevent it - or remove it if you find it on your device.

What is adware?

Adware is a type of unwanted software installed on your device that barrages you and your browser with advertisements. It's different than legitimate advertising programs or apps and websites that show you ads; advertising software is aggressive, like scareware, showing the user ads on every browser window and screen.

These ads are often for poor-quality products or even scams, as legitimate companies don't pay for advertisements via adware. Not only are these advertising software incidents annoying, but they also put users in a vulnerable position to be fooled by the products they see popping up in their browser.

How does adware work?

Adware works by attaching itself to another program - typically some sort of freeware or another downloadable app - and entering your computer. Once installed, it then uses your Internet browser to collect your browsing history. It sends you targeted ads on as many browser windows as possible; sometimes it even displays advertising on your screen or home page.

Advertisers and adware vendors get money from the advertisements shown to users through the software. Though adware is not always malicious, depending on the program, it can be. This type of malicious advertising software is also referred to as malvertising.

How adware is installed

Adware can install onto your device through three channels:

Adware computer displays popup ads
  1. Browser vulnerabilities. Adware can infect websites. Depending on your browser, the browser may have a vulnerability that allows it to download to your device when you visit the "bad" website.  It is recommended to use browser privacy to avoid ad tracking and possibly prevent the download of advertising software.
  2. Freeware or shareware. When you download free programs, they may contain adware that installs onto your device without your knowledge.
  3. Bad apps. Untrustworthy mobile applications can be infected with adware that can then install onto your device when you download the "bad" app.

Despite the fact that adware isn't inherently malicious, it's not something you want on your device. Be careful of any files or applications you download, as sometimes malicious adware piggybacks off of those files to get into your device's system.

How to detect adware

Differentiating between adware and standard advertisements on webpages or social media may seem difficult. However, there are a few signs you can watch for that indicate whether or not you have an advertising software infection. Look for these four tell-tale signs.

  • Your device shows ads constantly. When using the Internet, it's completely normal to see advertisements in the course of your browsing. However, if you encounter pop-up ads every few seconds or minutes that are difficult to close and hard to avoid, you likely have an adware infection.
  • You experience slower-than-normal device speeds. If you notice that your device seems to be running slower than normal, you might have adware. Advertising software takes up a lot of memory space and slows down your professor. It can also slow the speed of your Internet connection because it constantly downloads advertisements.
  • Your browser homepage has changed. Adware programs may change your browser homepage in order to install additional programs onto your device. If you notice your homepage has changed or doesn't operate like it used to, you could have an adware infection.
  • Your device crashes often. All devices crash every now and then, especially if you run multiple programs at once. But if you notice random crashes multiple times a day, you probably have some type of virus infecting your device.

Other traditional signs of malware, such as your device overheating or your battery draining quicker than usual, can also indicate an adware issue. In such cases, you will need to learn how to get rid of adware as dictated in the section below.

How to remove adware

If you do have an adware infection, there's no need to panic; it's possible to remove the software from your device.

First, uninstall the advertising software from your computer. You can do this from the Windows Apps & Features section on a Windows device by locating the malicious software and clicking Remove or Uninstall. For Mac computers, find it in the Activity Monitor and drag the programs to the Trash.

Once you've removed the offending software, reset your web browser settings to undo any changes made to the browser by the software. This will get rid of the slowdowns and frequent crashes experienced as a result of the software.

Finally, clear your DNS cache and clear your browser cookies to remove any remaining files. Following these three steps purges your computer of the advertising software, helping it run successfully.

How to prevent adware

The best way to protect yourself against adware and any other malware is to use a cybersecurity program such as Malwarebytes. Understanding the difference between malware and spyware helps you grasp how infections happen.  Once you have an anti-malware program installed, keep it up to date and run it regularly on all your devices. You should also keep your Internet browser up to date, as browser updates install security patches that fix any found vulnerabilities.

In addition to using adware blockers, exercise caution when using the Internet. Avoid suspicious websites, especially those that urge you to download unwanted applications or submit your information. Additionally, only install apps and software programs that are trusted and legitimate; research and read reviews before downloading anything. Finally, never click on pop-up ads; as appealing as they may seem, they often lead to adware on your device.

Frequently asked questions

Is adware a virus or malware?

Advertising software can be a form of malicious software, meaning it's malware.

Does adware steal passwords?

Some types of adware can steal passwords, yes. Specific advertising software applications act like spyware, meaning they monitor users' activity covertly in addition to displaying annoying pop-up ads. In these cases, it's possible for these malicious programs to steal your passwords and access your accounts and your personal data.

How harmful is adware?

Adware is not the most harmful kind of malware, but it still affects your operating system. It causes slowdowns, crashes, and other device damage.