You check your email or social media accounts using your browser. Nothing seems wrong until a few seconds later, and you’re suddenly bombarded with a slew of ads. What seems like hundreds of them pop up all over the place—they slide on the left, on the right and everywhere you point your mouse.
This is adware, also known as advertising supported software. Since companies or individuals make money off the revenue generated by ads, adware infects your system in order to get as many views as possible.
What is adware?
Adware is a term for programs that are designed to display ads on your computer, typically through your web or mobile browser. It shows you a barrage of unwanted ads online or through a toolbar on your computer.
Since adware automatically displays online advertisements, it generates income for the developer or hijacker. It’s not only annoying, but many forms of adware can be dangerous.
“Adware really is just another form of malicious software,” said Greg Scott, senior technical account manager at Red Hat, a company that offers enterprise open source solutions.
“Sometimes adware hijacks searches by redirecting them to advertising websites. Sometimes it collects marketing data about people for less-than-scrupulous marketing companies,” Scott said
What is the difference between adware and malware?
Adware and malware are similar in that they can both infect your computer for malicious reasons. In other words, adware is a type of malware that infects your system with ads.
The hijacker can do more than just try to make money off advertisements, such as track your behavior and sell the information to third parties who can use it to target you with more ads or, worse yet, scams.
“Other forms of malware include key loggers, rootkits, trojan horses and anything else a thriving criminal industry can imagine—and adware could be a front for any of these,” said Scott.
As in, key loggers can track what you type—like your passwords—and steal that information to access your accounts. Same goes with rootkits and trojan horses, where these types of malware can enter into your system through adware.
Related: Should you use a password manager?
What is an example of adware? How does it work?
There are two main methods that adware gets into your system:
- Browser hijacker: Your computer downloads the program when you visit an infected website, taking advantage of any loopholes in your browser and throwing a bunch of ads at you. The adware may also redirect you to other sites that house even more ads. Sometimes your homepage settings or default search engine selections are changed.
- Downloading freeware or shareware: Another way adware manifests in your system is through a download that installs software. It’s typically freeware or shareware you install that also sneaks in adware without your permission.
Scott said there are other ways adware gets you to engage with their ads in order to continue to infect your system.
“It’ll entice you by telling you click on their links to get major discounts, or download a beautiful screensaver or open an attachment to receive a free gift,” he said. “Once you do, then the program will deliver what it promised, plus some nasty surprises like infecting your system by disabling your antivirus software, all to display ads.”
Here are some signs that you’re infected by adware:
- Your computer is bombarded with pop-up ads or other types of advertisements.
- Your browser’s homepage is different and you didn’t change the settings.
- Websites you frequently visit aren’t displaying properly.
- Your web browser is very slow or crashes.
- You see new extensions, plug-ins or toolbars on your browser.
- You see software that has been installed or uninstalled without your permission.
How can I try to protect myself from adware?
If you suspect your computer has been infected with adware, you need to take steps to remove it. First, back up your files before removing any programs. Then, try to uninstall the adware program through your operating system first to see if it does the trick.
In cases where you aren’t sure which program it is or you can’t find it when you go to uninstall it, you’ll need to find a legitimate malware antivirus program and scan your system. If it finds anything, it’ll locate and remove them from your computer. To try to ensure that nobody can hack into any of your accounts, change your computer passwords and other online accounts.
Remaining vigilant about adware is the best way to prevent it from happening to you. Ensure your antivirus software is up-to-date, think twice about installing programs and avoid torrent sites that allow free downloads of movies, music or other software. If you do download programs, read the terms and privacy policies first, and don’t install anything if you’re suspicious.
Your information and cybersecurity is at stake, so it’s up to you to remain alert so your computer isn’t taken over.