How to Live a Digital Life Free of Spyware

Spyware is tricky. Some types notify users that they’re monitoring activity. Others function in stealth mode and use the information they collect for nefarious purposes. Spyware is a type of software that collects data about online users and reports it to a company or an individual. What just about everyone can agree on is that anonymous browsing is looking more and more appealing and is likely the way of the future.  

Here’s more about the types of spyware, which types are legal, and how you can scrub your device and live more confidently online. 

Types of Spyware 

Here are a few types of spyware and facts about each: 

 Keyloggers 

Is it legal? Definitely not! 

What is its purpose? Criminal 

Keyloggers are the most intrusive of the spyware variations. It does exactly as its name suggests: It takes note of keyboard strokes, logs them, and reports to the owner of the nefarious software. Once the cybercriminal has digitally looked over your shoulder at your online activity, they make note of your passwords, walk into your online accounts, and pilfer your private personal information. They could use this information to gain entry to your online bank accounts or steal your identity. 

Keyloggers are downloaded onto devices (cellphones, tablets, laptops, or desktop computers) without the user’s knowledge. Cybercriminals can hide them within email attachments or in malicious web pages. So, the best way to steer clear of keyloggers is to never download attachments you’re unsure about and don’t visit sites that seem unprofessional. One rule of thumb is to mostly stick to URLs that begin with https and include a lock icon. These sites are almost always secure. 

To determine if your device is infected with a keylogger, check your system’s performance. Is your device running slowly? See if there are any spikes in activity or unknown programs running in the background. This could indicate that your device is hosting a malicious program. 

Adware 

Is it legal? Sometimes 

What is its purpose? Advertising and criminal 

Adware is categorized as a type of spyware. It tracks users’ online activity and spits out targeted pop-up advertisements. If you have the pop-up blocker enabled on your browser, you’ll likely be spared from the annoyance. Additionally, pop-ups can slow your device, so that’s another reason to turn on the pop-up blocking feature. Legitimate adware often asks users to opt into targeted ads. 

Adware turns malicious (and illegal) when it contains malware. Sometimes cyber criminals hide malware within pop-ups. It’s easy to accidentally hit a link within a pop-up when you’re aiming quickly for the X to close it. 

It’s easy to spot a device with an adware infestation. First, the number of pop-ups will be out of control. Also, the device will crash often, run very slowly, and have a short battery life. An antivirus program will likely be able to identify and remove the culprit. You can also check out your system monitor and end tasks that are draining your device’s power. 

Cookies 

Is it legal? Yes 

What is its purpose? Advertising 

Cookies are delicious, especially to advertisers who use them to better target ads and make profits selling collected user data to third-party companies. Cookies are sometimes categorized as spyware, because they log the websites you visit and report them. You may notice the banners on websites that ask you to accept cookies. 

Many users today are uneasy with sharing their online activity with strangers and advertisers. Sometimes the ads that pop up on your social media feed or in sidebars seem a little too targeted and it feels like someone is listening in to your conversations and attempting to make a profit from them. 

How to Browse Free of Spyware 

To scrub cybercriminals from your devices and confuse advertisers, consider the following steps you can easily add to your daily routine: 

  1. Clear your cache periodically. This is a quick way to delete all the cookies from your device. It also helps if your device is running slowly. Clearing your cache deletes your browsing history, meaning that you won’t be able to type in your usual shortcuts to your most-visited sites and the browser won’t automatically auto-fill the rest of the URL or remember your passwords. Consider making bookmarks of your favorite sites for quick access and entrust your passwords to a password manager that will remember them for you. 
  2. Know how to spot phishing attempts. Cybercriminals often hide their spyware within phishing texts and emails, so it’s key to know how to spot them. Phishers trick users into acting quickly, either through scare tactics or fake exciting news, to download attachments or give up personal information. Luckily, phishing attempts usually aren’t too difficult to identify and delete immediately. Did you enter a contest lately? No? Then why would someone get in touch saying you’re a winner? Also, phishing messages are often full of typos and poor grammar. Before you click any links in an email, hover your cursor over it to see where the URL will take you. If it has typos, is filled with a long string of letters or numbers, or doesn’t match the site the message says it’ll redirect you to, delete it. 
  3. Browse in incognito mode. Browser sallow users to toggle incognito mode to use the internet anonymously. Once users exit incognito mode, all of their browsing history and the cookies collected during the session are deleted. Incognito mode, though effective against cookies, does not combat keyloggers or aggressive adware.  
  4. Use a VPN. A virtual private network (VPN) is even more secure than incognito mode. It completely scrambles your online data, making it impossible for a spy to hack into your device if you’re connected to a public wi-fi network. A VPN doesn’t stop cookies, but the geographic information they report may be incorrect. 
  5. Sign up for antivirus software. A comprehensive online protection software suite that includes antivirus software, such as McAfee Total Protection, can boost your confidence in your online safety. It can scan your phone, tablet, or computer for viruses or malware and automatically logs you into a VPN for secure browsing. 
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