Spyware 101: Definition, Types, and Prevention

by | August 21, 2021 | Cybersecurity, How to

Attackers use spyware to snoop around, secretly collect information and monitor someone’s activity against their knowledge and without their consent.

Keep reading to learn what this creepy and invasive form of malware is, the types and cautions you can take against it.

Spyware is used by hackers to monitor someone's online activity withought their knowledge.

What is Spyware?

Spyware encapsulates a wide range of malware intended to secretly observe activity on a device and send back the observations to attackers. Snoopers can use the stolen information against you in several ways: to track your activity online, to determine the best approach for a cyberattack directed at you, or to sell it.

Spyware is also used to steal personal data, such as credentials and credit card information, which can lead to identity theft.

“Spyware is really anything that’s collecting—and possibly disseminating—information about the user without the consumer’s consent,” explains Josh Zelonis, a senior analyst at market research company Forrester Research. “Spyware is and will always be a popular method of collecting private information. We see it in banking Trojans, ad networks, jealous spouses, and companies crossing ethical boundaries by installing keystroke loggers as part of their ‘insider threat programs. It’s an incredibly broad problem that impacts everyone potentially.”

Types of Spyware

Here are the most common faces of spyware:

1. Adware

It tracks your online activity and behavior and displays advertisements it thinks are interesting for you considering that information.

Although it’s a somewhat lighter form, adware can negatively impact the performance of a device and be quite annoying and distracting.

2. Tracking cookies

Similar to adware, but usually less invasive.

3. Trojans

Following the infection, they search for sensitive user data, like bank account information, and send it to hackers, who will use it to steal money, compromise accounts, or make illicit purchases. Trojans can also seize control of a device by opening a backdoor and allow remote access.

4. Keyloggers

Hackers use keyloggers to record every keystroke from your keyboard, including those you use to log into all of your accounts. Needless to say, it’s a very easy way to steal credentials.

5. Stalkerware

6. Stealware

Stalkerware usually affects smartphones so that a third party can track the owner. For instance, in Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s case, it was revealed that he’d installed such malware on the phones of his wife, associates, and female friends to read and listen to their conversations and monitor their activity.

Stealware exploits shopping websites awarding credits to sites that direct traffic to their product pages. When the target lands on one of those sites, stealware intercepts the request and takes the credit for sending the user there without actually doing so.

7. System monitors

This malware records everything that’s happening on a device: keystrokes, emails, web history, programs launched, and phone calls.

They can also monitor a system’s processes and identify its weaknesses. All the information gathered is then sent to the cybercriminal.

How Does Spyware Work?

It spreads in several ways. The most notable one is getting users to click on a link that leads to a malicious website. Such links can be presented to the users in an email, a text message, pop-up windows, and ads. Malicious URLs have been spotted also in Google search results.

Other times, you don’t even need to click on a poisoned link to land on an infected website. Attackers can embed malicious code on legitimate websites that can infect you just by landing on a page. Wrong place, wrong time, and a bit of bad luck are all it takes for you to become a victim.

Spyware can also hide in infected files, typically attached to emails claiming to be from a trusted sender, or can be downloaded by users unknowingly.

However, social engineering remains the most popular way to spread malware infections. “Tricking someone to go to a web page that exploits a browser vulnerability or exploits the user’s gullibility is going to be the main way any malware gets distributed, including spyware,” Jon Amato, a senior director analyst in the Atlanta offices of research and advisory company Gartner says.

Spyware Prevention

“Spyware infections take place because individuals go to nefarious websites without knowledge,” Amato notes. “They click a random link. They open an attachment they shouldn’t. They engage in poor cybersecurity practices.”

Here are some tips to help you avoid infection:

  1. Only download files from trusted sites.
  2. Keep your antivirus updated.
  3. Only download apps from Google Play/App Store on your phone.
  4. Create a lock code for your phone that only you know.
  5. Keep your browser updated.
  6. Install an ad blocker in your browser.

In a corporate environment, a good protection solution will detect most adware, although a strong security awareness training program that teaches your employees how to avoid adware and other types of malware will be the most effective.

Get your quote today for ATTACK Simulator’s Security Awareness Training Program here.

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by Diana Panduru

Content writer for Attack Simulator. Passionate about all things writing and cybersecurity, and obsessed with driving. I sometimes indulge in pencil drawing, poetry, and cooking for fun.

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