Adware/Spyware Information

1. Introduction

Adware and Spyware are two types of software which can get installed on your computer without your knowledge, and whose activities intrude into your use of the computer and also your privacy. Unlike computer viruses, adware and spyware generally do not try to cause damage to your computer system or try to spread themselves to other computers.

1.1. Adware

Adware comes in various forms. The most common symptoms of its activity include:

  • unwanted advertising matter randomly appearing on your screen
  • your browser's home page being "hijacked" to display a page for some commercial service or search engine
  • problems connecting to web services which authorise access on the basis of internet IP address

Some free or shareware software (for example the Opera web browser) legitimately displays advertising in a clearly stated way to finance the software's development. However, adware does this in a covert way by installing itself secretly, for example by including itself alongside some other product you are installing, or by enticing you to click on a web-screen image. In some cases, you may unwittingly agree to adware installation in the small print of an on-screen licence agreement when installing a software package.

As well as displaying advertising, adware can also record information about your web-browsing activities and report these to a third party, for example to target the advertising to your interests. Some web browser add-ons, such as the Alexa toolbar, do this.

Not all unwanted screen advertising is a result of adware. Some web pages produce their own local onscreen pop-ups when you view them. These pop-ups can be irritating but are not produced by an adware infection. They can usually be supressed by a "pop-up stopper" such as the one provided by the Google Toolbar.

Another form of intrusive screen pop-up on Windows PCs makes use of Microsoft's Messenger Services (note that this is different from MSN Instant Messenger) and has Messenger Service in the pop-up title-bar. In earlier versions of Windows, this facility was called WinPopup. For information on disabling Messenger Services or WinPopup see, for example,

1.2. Spyware

Whereas adware may be largely an irritation, spyware presents a much more serious threat. Spyware snoops on your computer activity and may record keystrokes, including passwords and other private information, which are then communicated to others, possibly resulting in criminal activity such as using your credit card details. Spyware installation, too, may originate as part of a freeware product, or by enticing you to click on a web-screen image.

2. Removing Adware/Spyware

A number of free software products check for and remove adware/spyware from your system. Some of the most well-known ones are:

  • Malwarebytes (free version provides detection and removal; needs to be updated and run the scan manually on free version)
  • Ad-Aware (performs detection and removal; free for individual private use only)
  • Windows Defender (performs ongoing detection and removal)
  • Spybot Search and Destroy (performs detection and removal)
  • HijackThis (specifically aimed at home-page hijacking)
  • MacScan (for the Apple Macintosh)

As with anti-virus software, it is crucial to keep adware/spyware removal products up-to-date for them to be effective.

Unfortunately, some supposed adware-removal programs exist that are of doubtful quality, or that give inflated numbers of detection warnings to encourage sales, or that even install their own adware. The Spyware Warrior web site gives more information on such products.

3. Preventing Adware/Spyware Infections

Some of the anti-adware/spyware removal packages mentioned in the previous section may offer protection against adware/spyware being installed in the first place although this may be in a non-free version of the program.

You can reduce the possibility of adware/spyware infections in Internet Explorer (IE) by raising the level of its security settings. In IE go to [Tools->Internet Options->Security] and set the security level for the Internet Zone to High. (If no slider is visible, click Default level to make it appear first.) Then set the security level for the Trusted Zone to Medium and add the sites you use and trust to this zone; you may need to do this quite often as many badly-designed sites will not work in the High security mode.

Another issue with Internet Explorer is its Related Links option on the Tools menu, the use of which can transmit your web browsing activities back to a company called Alexa. Some spyware removal software will offer to remove this facility.

Since many adware/spyware (and other security attacks) exploit specific weaknesses in Internet Explorer, another option is to switch to another web browser such as Opera or Netscape Mozilla, Firefox except for web sites that only behave properly using IE.

In general, try to avoid clicking on any enticing-looking buttons on web pages, for example the [X]in the corner of an irritating graphic may not be a real close-box, but a disguised button to install adware/spyware. (Pressing Alt/F4 is a safer way of closing the currently active window.) Avoid installing any software from unknown sources - even if the product performs a useful function, there may be a hidden cost if it also installs adware/spyware alongside itself.


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Written by IT Services. Latest revision 30 March 2015