Spyware Explained and How it Works

Since the inception of the internet, bad actors have taken advantage of security holes for criminal purposes. To clarify, spyware is one of the oldest and most common threats that we all face on the internet.

What is Spyware?

Moreover, spyware is a pervasive form of malicious software that seeks to steal victims' personal data and use it for nefarious purposes. Furthermore, it infects your computer or mobile device and collects a myriad of data about you and your internet browsing habits. To clarify, this can include your username and password, things you upload and download, credit card information, and more.

Good spyware is sly. After all, what good spy easily detected? Moreover, it can be quite difficult to detect a spyware program running on your computer. Furthermore, it slides under your nose and quietly attaches itself to your system. So while you browse, watch Netflix, or play games, the spyware program will be there, silently tracking you and your activities.

How It Is Installed

Spyware infects your system in the same way as any other type of malicious software. In short, see below for a handful of techniques that hackers use to install spyware on unsuspecting devices:

spyware explained and how it works

  • Phishing. Phishing involves an action by a user that "allows" software installation on the user's device. To clarify, this typically involves clicking a link on a spammy website or opening an infected email attachment. Called phishing because your device is the fish and the hackers are the fishermen. When they send you an email with a spyware attachment, they are "fishing" for you to open it.
  • Deceptive Advertisements. Another technique is when hackers advertise their spyware programs as useful tools. Look out for terms like "download manager" or "hard drive cleanser". Again, like phishing attacks, don't fall for this "bait". Furthermore, they are simple tricks to get you to install the spyware. And even if you delete that "download manager," the spyware will remain on your device like sticky putty.
  • Vulnerabilities and Backdoors. This one doesn't involve any action on your part. Every device or system has certain vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers. Cybercriminals are adept at finding vulnerabilities and backdoors to exploit and install spyware.
  • Trojans. A Trojan is simply malware that pretends to be something that it's not. Like the Trojan horse, it tricks you to get into the gates of your system. And once it's inside, it can do as it pleases.

Spyware Types

Cybercriminals have different targets, and thus, there are different types of spyware to target different types of data. See below for a summary of the different types:

  • Keyloggers. This one is pretty self-explanatory. These designed programs capture all of the keystrokes on your keyboard as you browse the internet. But in addition to keystrokes, they can also detect your website visits, emails (sent and received), credentials, and more. Essentially, it's as if the hacker were sitting next to you watching your every movement on your computer or phone.
  • Infostealers. These programs scan devices to find information held in the files. This includes username and passwords, email addresses, browsing history, documents media files, and more. Think of allowing a hacker free reign to look in all of your file folders.
  • Password stealers. This type of program is designed specifically to steal passwords (system credentials, store passwords on web browsers, and more).

How to Detect

Spyware is by its nature very difficult to recognize. It is designed to be deceptive and difficult to find. That being said, follow these clues to help you identify spyware on your device:

  • Slow or unreliable device. If your device shows a noticeable slow-down or started to crash unexpectedly, you may have spyware.
  • Running out of space. If your device is unexpectedly low on storage, this may be a warning sign.
  • Incessant pop-ups. Online and offline popups can be a sign.

How to Remove Spyware

If you think your device might be infected, follow these steps.

  1. If you do not already have a cybersecurity program installed on your device, get one. There are many reputable free options out there. Once you have it installed, run it. It will clean up your system and remove any spyware installed on your device.
  2. If you think any of your account information has been stolen, contact your accounts, especially your banking institutions.
  3. If the stolen information includes any media such as images, audio, or video, you should contact your local law-enforcement authorities.
  4. Depending on the nature of the attack, it may be a good idea to freeze your credit.

How to Prevent Spyware

Like Smokey Bear says, only you can protect yourself from attacks. Follow these four steps:

  1. Don't open emails from unknown senders.
  2. Don't download files from suspicious sources.
  3. Never click pop-up ads. If you must, mouse over the link first to make sure it is taking you to the right webpage.
  4. Use a reputable cybersecurity program and regularly run it to keep your device healthy.

Consider using real-time protection when you are looking for cybersecurity programs. This type of protection blocks spyware and other malware threats in real-time before they can get access to your information.

If you follow these tips, you should be able to keep yourself safe from spyware.

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