What is spyware?
Spyware programs usually steal information for advertising purposes or for financial gain. They are created by cybercrooks, who sell them on the black market to be used in online fraud and other cybercrime.
The type of information stolen by these programs varies considerably: email login details, IP and DNS addresses of the computer, users’ Internet habits, etc.
How does it reach users?
Spyware is installed on computers without the user’s knowledge. It can be installed when downloading certain content from the Internet or via peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, when installing freeware, or simply when visiting dubious websites. In addition to gathering information on the victim, it can “hijack” certain functionalities of their computer system, taking advantage of its placement to show ads, redirect users to insecure webpages, and carry out other disruptive tasks.
However, its primary objective is to steal information, from basic system preferences to keystrokes (compromising all passwords and user names entered by users), as well as stored credentials and banking details. Additionally, spyware programs may affect system stability by taking up space and consuming processing resources.
Unlike other types of malware, spyware doesn’t spread in a “viral” way, but rather sneaks onto the victim’s computer with some other software. Nevertheless, spyware with viral capabilities is becoming more and more common.
Spyware and advertising
Generally, spyware programs are installed when the user agrees to install other applications which, unbeknown to users, include a caveat in the legal agreement whereby users agree to install the spyware.
There is some controversy surrounding what is actually spyware, as some people consider adware or even some toolbars to be variations of spyware. While this may be true to a certain extent, adware programs, as such, are not used with criminal intent, but to advertise products and services.
How to protect yourself from spyware
Despite the many people that have been affected by spyware around the world, spyware is usually a secondary concern in corporate or home security. This common error can lead to severe economic losses, and in the best cases can seriously affect computer performance.
- Use anti-spyware tools that recognize the signatures or behaviors typical of the most common forms of spyware. Professional solutions, such as Panda DOME, monitor in real time the activity of all applications and anticipate suspicious behaviors.
- Always verify that the person sending a file actually sent you the file, and do not reply to emails asking for personal or confidential information.
- Reject add-ons and software that you do not recognize. This will prevent spyware from being installed by mistake or neglect. Be selective with what you install. Pay attention to the screens displayed in setup wizards and watch out for automatically-filled checkboxes.
- Finally, it is extremely important to keep your software updated. This includes patches for system applications as well as important browser updates.