What is Spyware, and How Does it Affect Your Computer?

If you’re a regular internet user, you have most likely already heard of the term “Spyware”. Though many people are aware that spyware can  negatively affect the performance of their computer, a very small percentage of internet users actually understand what it is. In fact, some people even believe that it involves “hackers” infiltrating their computer’s security. In reality, the truth is much different. Here is a general explanation of spyware, how it affects your computer, and what you can do to protect yourself against it.

What is Spyware?

The term “Spyware” is actually a casual term for adware. Adware is software that operates by gathering information (including behavior, viewing trends, personal information, browsing history, etc) about the user(s) of a specific computer. This software is often able to operate completely without the user’s knowledge. In some cases, the software may also change the settings or configurations of the computer it is present on.

Why is Spyware Dangerous?

The answer to this question is a bit complicated, since not all adware programs are dangerous. Some programs are simply designed to gather marketing information in order to be used by a company, or to cause targeted advertisements to show up while a user is browsing. However, there are some types of adware which may collect personal information, making you vulnerable to identity theft and/or credit card fraud. In addition to this, some spyware programs may cause your computer to crash or freeze on a regular basis.

How Does My Computer Get Spyware?

There are many methods that spyware may use to infiltrate your computer. Some of the most common methods include:

Freeware Programs
In some cases, the development of many “free” programs is funded by an agreement to bundle an adware program in the install package. You may see an option during the install of your freeware program, which may be something like,

“YES! Please give me the additional services of [Adware Program Name] at no extra charge!”

This may be in the form of a program designed to give you “Special Discounts”, or “Exclusive Deals”. Be wary of adding any extra programs during the install of a freeware program.

Internet Browser Toolbars
Many adware programs are designed to take the form of a toolbar that installs directly into your internet browser. These toolbars may provide customized search options, website suggestions or other services. It should be noted that the toolbar is able to provide these services because they are monitoring your browsing history and other information. Though not all toolbar adware programs are dangerous, you should still avoid them if you do not wish your browsing history to be tracked by the program.

It’s possible for adware to be directly embedded into the code of a specific webpage. Some scripting languages may infiltrate vulnerabilities of your computer, installing directly by using your internet browser.

Email Attachments
Some email attachments may contain adware or even computer viruses. Once you open the attachment, the malicious program is installed onto your computer. This may be in the form of a funny movie, a cute picture or other message that will be frequently forwarded through a person’s email contacts.

How Can I Protect My Computer Against Spyware?

There are many methods that you may use to protect your computer from being infiltrated by spyware/adware programs. This includes:

  • Using a Secure Internet Browser
  • Installing Anti-Spyware Software**
  • Only Opening Trusted Email Attachments
  • Installing a Virus/Spyware Scanner with Real-Time Monitoring
  • Using Common Sense When Browsing

    ** NOTE: Some “Anti-Spyware” programs are actually designed to install adware and other dangerous programs onto your computer! When choosing an Anti-Spyware program, be sure to read reviews of that program, and ensure that it is from a trusted organization. If there is a customer service number, you may want to contact them directly for more information about their software.