Spyware 101

This week I had to “clean up” another work mate’s personal PC because of spyware (and a troublesome Trojan horse). This threat obviously is not taken seriously by many computer users and I am not sure why. This got me thinking that a little education was in order. I have covered this before, but I decided to take a little time to talk “Spyware 101”.

Basically, What is Spyware?
Spyware is software that’s installed without your consent, whether it be a traditional computer, an application in your web-browser, or a mobile application residing on your device. In short, spyware communicates personal, confidential information about you to an attacker. The information might be reports about your online browsing habits or purchases, but it can also be modified to record things like keystrokes on the keyboard, credit card information, passwords, or login credentials.

This software normally gets onto a computer by attaching itself to some other program that the user intentionally downloads and installs. Sometimes this is done completely discreetly, but other times the desired software will include information in the license agreement actually describing the spyware — without using the term “spyware” — and forcing the user to agree to install it in order to install the desired program. Alternatively, spyware can get into a computer through all the avenues that other malware takes, such as when the user visits a compromised website or opens a malicious attachment in an email.

What is the Harm Anyway?
Spyware can cause you two main problems. First, and perhaps most importantly, it can steal personal information that can be used for identity theft. If the malicious software has access to every piece of information on your computer, including browsing history, email accounts, saved passwords used for online banking and shopping in addition to social networks, it can harvest more than enough information to create a profile imitating your identity. In addition, if you’ve visited online banking sites, spyware can siphon your bank account information or credit card accounts and sell it to third-parties or use them directly.

The second, and more common, problem is the damage spyware can do to your computer. This is where I usually get the phone call. Spyware can take up an enormous amount of your computer’s resources, making it run slowly, lag in between applications or while online, frequent system crashes or freezes and even overheat your computer causing permanent damage. It can also manipulate search engine results and deliver unwanted websites in your browser, which can lead to potentially harmful websites or fraudulent ones. It can also cause your home page to change and can even alter some of your computer’s settings.

Controlling Spyware
The best way to control spyware is by preventing it from getting on your computer in the first place. However not downloading programs and never clicking on email attachments isn’t always an option. Sometimes, even a trusted website can become compromised and infect your computer — even if you’ve done nothing wrong.

Many people are turning to internet security solutions with reliable antivirus detection capabilities and proactive protection. If your computer is already infected, many security providers offer spyware removal utilities to assist in identifying and removing spyware. There are a number of free antivirus solutions available, such as Microsoft’s Security Essentials which promises unlimited protection at no cost. There are also excellent paid options as well to protect your PC, and yourself which I have covered many times in the past.

Spyware, and its associated malicious programs like malware and viruses, will always be a danger as long as you use an Internet connected device. As a result everyone who uses computing devices from PCs to tablets and even smartphones needs to take a little time and become aware of the real dangers of spyware.

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