It sounds like an impressive James Bond gadget: Spyware. But this software is far from fantasy, and it is used everyday to steal information from millions of users. Spyware is a type of malware that gets onto your computer in different ways, but it all has the same goal: to collect information about you without your knowledge. Between 80 and 90 percent of desktops are infected with spyware, according to the National Cyber Security Alliance. This means almost 200 million Internet users are at-risk in the U.S. Read on to find out how to protect yourself.
Its name is intimidating —for good reason. In many ways, spyware functions like a traditional spy by siphoning your information, following your every move, and, in some cases, sabotaging your life. The only difference is it does everything online and via your computer, without your knowledge or consent. This malicious software tracks your online activity and sensitive data, which cybercriminals can access for ID theft, fraud, or even blackmail. It has also been marketed in software programs that allow couples to monitor each other’s online behavior (many of these programs have been deemed illegal).
However, spyware is not always used for malicious purposes. Many companies use it to tailor advertising, sometimes with your consent. Still, as privacy concerns come front-and-center in the digital age, users should ensure that their computers are not victim to spyware.
Are You Being Spied On?
What makes spyware so effective is that it is usually installed without the user’s consent or knowledge. It can be surreptitiously hidden in a different program, tricking the user into installing it. For example, spyware has been known to be embedded into music players or rogue security software programs that users willingly download, thinking they’re getting a legitimate version. Spyware can also be installed by exploiting the security vulnerabilities of web browsers or websites, making a decoy page appear legitimate.
Yet though it prides itself on being undetected and the strongest spyware often is, there are telltale signs that your computer has been affected. The following are symptoms of a computer infected with spyware:
-Your computer is slow and constantly crashes. Spyware may be interfering with proper functioning.
-You are inundated with popup ads. Marketers may be targeting you via spyware.
-Your Internet settings/browser are off. If your web browser’s home page has suddenly changed, you see new pages appear in your bookmarks, or a new search toolbar appears, spyware is probably responsible.
There are several steps you can take to safeguard your computer against spyware. Remember to always:
Install a “2-way” firewall. This will prevent hackers from accessing your info and prevent spyware from sending stolen information back to its host servers. ZoneAlarm provides a free and powerful 2-way firewall. To download a copy, please visit www.zonealarm.com/freefirewall. Also remember to update your operating system regularly.
Install anti-spyware software. This will scan your computer, and detect and remove any spyware. Most premium security suites will come with anti-spyware software, but be sure to check.
Close out of any popups. Sneaky popups can be embedded with spyware, and clicking “cancel” on some actually directs it to install. Instead, close out of any popups by clicking on the “X” instead of “no” or “cancel.”
Update Internet security settings. To avoid sharing your information with websites, you can adjust your system’s Internet security settings. You should set them to medium or higher protection.
Read all privacy agreements. Automatically agreeing means you may be opting into spyware. Read carefully, and consider how much information you’re willing to share.
Surf the Web safely. Use your best judgment when online. Only download programs and visit websites you trust.