Isn’t it crazy how a seemingly normal browser becomes totally unruly all of a sudden? At one time, you open your device, launch your browser, and surf the internet like you normally do, then it’s like all hell broke loose after you visited a certain website or clicked a specific link. Ads keep popping up on your screen like mushrooms and there seems to be no way to get rid of them, you get redirected to a different website, and you can’t finish what you want to do. Trying to close those windows is a real challenge because you have to be a lot faster when clicking the x button than when they multiply.
This troublesome phenomenon is the work of adware, a type of advertising-supported software that is one of the most common forms of malware today. And it is only being driven by one thing —money. Adware earns money by shoving ads into people’s faces. This is the reason they are so persistent and so irritating when they infect your computer or mobile device.
This guide will give you an overview of what adware is, what it does, how it infects your computer, how it wreaks havoc, and what you can do to contain or delete it.
What is Adware?
Adware, also known as advertising supported software, refers to any unwanted software created to throw ads up on your screen, usually while using a web browser. Most security experts consider it the predecessor of the modern-day potentially unwanted program (PUP). Basically, adware uses a deceitful way to either disguise itself as an authentic software, or piggyback on another legitimate program to trick you into downloading it on your computer, tablet, or other mobile devices.
This potentially unwanted program is called adware when it’s on computers. But once it infects mobile devices, the term used is now madware. Adware generates income for its creator by automatically showing online ads in the user interface of the program or on a window that pops up during the app’s installation process.
After having been successfully installed, that’s when you begin to notice ads for miracle weight loss programs, devious get-rich-quick offers, and fake virus notifications that tempts you to click on their link and install their software. You might also see new tabs opening out of the blue, new changes to your home page, some search results from a search engine you never installed, or even be redirected to a porn or gaming website.
Take note that some legitimate applications also use online advertising and some of these ads are bundled within the program. However, adware is completely different in the sense that its intent is more underhanded. You might unknowingly download it without knowing you’re actually downloading adware. Or it could be hidden within a legitimate app and infects your computer when you install the app that it came with. Whatever route it takes, the effect is the same. You get lots of unwanted ads that do not come from the website you are visiting or the app you are using.
Adware may not be as malicious as other viruses or malware floating around on the Internet, but adware needs to taken off of whatever device it has infected. Not only can it be really annoying every time you use your device, but it could also lead to long-term issues for your computer or phone.
Once adware infects your device, it might perform all sorts of unwanted tasks. The adware might be designed to get your location and keep a log of the websites you visit, and then deliver advertising that is relevant to the products or services featured on those websites. Adware is actually more of a pesky nuisance than a dangerous threat to your online security, but if the adware’s creator sells your browsing history and information to third parties, your data can be used to target you with more advertisements tailored to your viewing habits. And it doesn’t matter whether you are using Safari, Chrome, Firefox, or other browsers. Adware affects all of them.
History of Adware
From the mid-90s, security experts deemed the first ad-supported software as part of the bigger category of spyware. Later on, they began to recognize adware as a less harmful type of PUP. They were even considered legitimate, at least in theory, because businesses with physical offices and payrolls were actually creating adware software.
But the partners of these legitimate businesses often distribute their adware without themselves being examined for authenticity by the adware vendor. By being unchecked, the adware spread rapidly by every means possible—botnets, peer-to-peer sites, instant messaging infections, and browser hijacking.
Later, adware vendors began to shut down their affiliates and started denying responsibility for their affiliate’s actions. This was a common scenario during the peak adware years, which boomed from around 2005 to 2008. After that, authorities began to issue hefty fines for these offenses, which made the biggest adware players to pack up and leave. Recently, web browsers have also been cracking down using adblockers. Adblock plugins are growing in use. Although these measures may protect users from adware, they also cause websites to lose earnings from legitimate ads.
Today, although adware is still around, it is usually considered as a form of PUP, which presents lesser threat than that of malware. Nonetheless, adware is still popular and always ranks highly in most analysis of top consumer detections. In the latter half of 2018, adware ranked second behind banking Trojans, like Emotet, as the number one consumer detection. The primary reason is that the volume of adware is increasing, perhaps due to the proliferation of mobile devices and adware finding its way into mobile apps. However, adware creators today are consolidating power. In order to stay afloat, they use more aggressive techniques than the ones they previously used.
How to Know If Your Device Is Infected With Adware
It’s not always easily obvious when you get adware — not until you get the unlimited ads popping up. However, there are some early warning signs that might indicate you have been infected by adware.
- Slow Computer or Device
If you suddenly notice that it’s taking longer than usual to open apps and run them, or to open documents, photos or anything other files on your computer, then you might have adware. Adware eats up a lot of computer resources since it runs continuously in the background. Therefore adware can cause your device’s processor to slow down. It can also take up lots of memory space, decreasing your computer’s overall performance.
- Ads Everywhere
Getting a few pop-up ads while surfing the web is normal. And it is also natural to see ads that are similar to a product you might have searched for before. However, if you get bombarded with a lot of pop-ups that can’t be closed no matter what, or you are being redirected to full page ads, then your device might be infected with adware.
- Crashing Apps
If your programs are randomly crashing or your entire device is freezing up, these symptoms are a red flag for adware.
- Changes to Your Browser Homepage
Adware also changes your browser’s homepage. When you open your browser and you get redirected to a new webpage that might install more malicious software on your computer, then that’s the work of adware.
- Slow Internet Connection
Adware downloads massive amounts of advertisements on the internet, which can significantly slow down your internet connection.
- Websites Look Weird
When web pages that you usually visit are not displaying properly or when the layout or design of the page looks unnatural, then you might have adware infection.
How Do You Get Adware?
There are two main methods by which adware can get on your system or device.
- In the first method, you might have downloaded a program that contains adware, this is technically called freeware or shareware. The adware is then quietly installed on your computer without your knowledge.
- The second method of adware delivery uses a bad website. These websites are infected with adware, which can take advantage of a vulnerability in your browser to deliver a drive-by download.
Different Types of Adware
Most adware qualifies as browser hijackers because they try all methods to dig into your PC or other devices. These interlopers work by modifying your web browser settings without your knowledge or consent. Basically, hijackers change your homepage and default search settings. Sometimes the changes are so abrupt that you immediately notice something’s wrong. But most of the time, users continue happily surfing along when the ads suddenly start popping up. Your first thought could be that the ads came from the site you’re visiting (which can be true at times), but they are actually caused by malware. Since these ads appear in the form of pop-ups or pop-unders, it may seem that the ads are embedded in the website itself.
Aside from hijacking your browser, there are also adware programs that change your start page, your new tab page, your search engine, or even the shortcuts on your computer that launch your browsers. Of course, there are also different adware for different devices and operating systems. So you might have to deal with Android adware, Mac adware, iOS adware, or Windows adware.
Is Adware a Virus?
Adware is a type of malware, but it is a lot different from a computer virus. Malware is considered the umbrella term for all types of malicious software in different categories. Viruses can self-propagate while corrupting files and spreading to new devices on their own. Trojans, on the other hand, can hide malicious code within a seemingly harmless package; Ransomware keeps your files hostage and demands a ransom before releasing them. Adware may not be a virus, but that doesn’t minimize the annoyance and damage it can bring to your device.
How to Remove Adware?
While preventing certain types of scripts from running in your web browser may help, adware is generally written using the same programming language used by authentic websites. Disabling those types of scripts also means disabling your browser as you know it. You will need to slowly and carefully remove the adware by using a specialized tool.
How to Remove Adware on PC
You don’t want to disable the whole web, so you’ll need to remove adware on a PC the same way you’d get rid of other malware like viruses, Trojans, and spyware. You could remove things manually, but the process can be tedious and/or require a bit of advanced tech knowledge. The easiest way to remove adware is to use an adware removal tool that will scan your system for malicious code, and remove all traces of it.
How to Remove Adware on a Mac
While it’s a common myth that Macs don’t get malware, they are actually susceptible to all types of malicious software. So it is a good idea to maintain a line of defense to protect against malicious URLs, infected attachments, and drive-by-downloads. A robust adware removal tool is the fastest and easiest way to clean up your system.
If you want to do it manually, it will be a lot more difficult — but it is possible. First, you need to make sure that the adware has not installed a new admin profile on your macOS. Delete the fake profile if it did. Next, find and delete the adware itself. Use Finder to sort your apps by install date. Then, go to:
- /Library/Application Support
Find the most recently installed files and drag them to the Trash to uninstall them.
How to Remove Adware on Android
Is your mobile phone infected with adware? Adware, just like other types of malware, can also infect Android devices. If your phone is acting weird, you should be able to quickly fix it by deleting your most recently installed apps, in case a malicious app was sneakily installed on your phone.
Go to the Applications section under Settings, find the malicious application, clear the app’s cache and data, then uninstall it. But if you can’t determine which app is causing trouble, remove all the most recently installed apps altogether. And don’t forget to restart your phone.
How to Protect Against Adware
As with most types of malware, combining a strong antimalware tool with the best privacy practices is the most effective way to avoid adware.
Keep your software and OS updated.
As mentioned earlier, hackers often exploit software vulnerabilities to inject malware into a system. If you make sure to install all updates available, you should be able to keep these holes protected so hackers can’t get in.
Don’t be too curious.
Hackers usually use mysterious files, unnamed USB drives, and enticing emails to get people to download adware and other dangerous stuff. If you are not sure what you’re getting, don’t download it on your PC, Mac, or Android device.
Pay close attention.
Malicious websites, fake warnings, and scam emails are often used to spread adware to your device. Never download attachments sent via emails from unknown sources. Confirm that website’s URLs are spelled or written correctly.
Be careful of what you click.
Ironically, one of the easiest ways to get adware is by clicking on an infected pop-up ad or banner. Be careful that you don’t accidentally click on something you didn’t mean to. Better yet, install a good ad blocker.
Be wary of what you download.
Adware could pose as anything– from a new game on Google Play to free, pirated apps you found online. Only download apps and files from online sources you trust. Using the official store should help.
Sure, there are risks out there in the digital world. However, protecting your devices may not be as impossible as you think. Running an online security suite and keeping in mind some common sense precautions can help shield your devices against different types of malicious software.