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Adware can be perfectly safe for users and a valid business practice for software developers. However, some adware is highly manipulative and creates an open door for malicious programs. To avoid viruses, spyware, and other threats, you’ll have to know which types of adware are bad and how to keep it off your devices.

In this article, we’ll cover how malicious adware can impact the security of your computer.

As we dive in, we’ll cover some common questions you might have:

  • What is the definition of adware?
  • What does adware do?
  • What is an adware virus and is adware a virus?
  • How do I remove adware from my phone or computer?
  • What can I do to protect myself from adware?

Let’s begin by going over the definition of adware.

What is Adware?

Adware is also known as advertisement-supported software. Creators of adware include advertisements or help distribute other software to earn money.

In many cases, ads may be within the software itself. Alternatively, the adware may encourage you to install additional software provided by third-party sponsors.

Adware programs exist across all computers and mobile devices. Most of these are perfectly safe and legitimate, but some might have dark motives that you are unaware of.

You might opt to download adware if you want:

  • Free computer programs or mobile apps.
  • Personalized ads tailored to your wants and needs.
  • To try the software that comes bundled.

Adware creators and distributing vendors make money from third-parties via either:

  • Pay-per-click (PPC) — they get paid each time you open an ad.
  • Pay-per-view (PPV) — they get paid each time an ad is shown to you.
  • Pay-per-install (PPI) — they get paid each time bundled software is installed on a device.

The sponsoring third-parties benefit from adware by:

  • Gaining more users for their software.
  • Showing their products or services to more potential customers.
  • Collecting data about you to create more effective custom marketing adverts.

Together, this is what makes adware profitable and beneficial for you and all people involved.

By definition, adware is not inherently malicious. However, the intentions of the paying advertiser, a secondary paying distributor, or the creator may be less safe. Plus, it can be a gateway for malicious acts, like malware infection or spying on your digital habits.

Adware vs Malware vs Spyware

Adware can sometimes be incorrectly labeled as malware or spyware. Cybersecurity companies don't label all adware as a threat because some are perfectly safe and reputable.

However, some adware does pose a risk that can introduce a threat to your devices. When you’re discussing adware, you might wonder “what is the difference between malware and adware,” or “what is adware and spyware?”

Malware is malicious software designed to disrupt, corrupt, or steal information from computer devices. This includes threats like viruses, spyware, ransomware, and other malicious code.

Spyware is a type of malware that acts as a window to monitor your device without your permission.

Adware is not in itself malware, however, it may be equally unwanted in some cases. It can sometimes assist in the delivery of malware, which may often include spyware. Adware can just as easily be harmless and respectful, whereas others might be invasive and irritating.

Types of Adware

To further define ad-supported software, we must separate harmless and harmful adware.

Legitimate adware allows you to consent to ads and software promos, offsetting costs to offer their software for free. You and others willingly download this type of adware to get a free product. Also, you might choose to allow it to collect marketing info. Sometimes the accompanying personalized ads or sponsored third-party software can be desirable.

Adware developed by legitimate means is created by all types of developers — even highly reputable ones. It’s a valid, legal, and ethical way to give customers a free product.

However, not all application downloads are consensual. This is where legal lines come into play.

Potentially unwanted applications (PUAs) include any program you might not have chosen to install onto your device. These may also be called potentially unwanted programs (PUPs).

PUA adware may be in a moral grey area or fully malicious and illegal. It depends on the goals of the software and those who distribute it.

  • Legal deceptive adware PUA may actively make it tricky to opt-out of installing harmless third-party software. While frustrating, legitimate adware sometimes uses this method. It is legal if the creator has not knowingly included malware-tainted ads or software. Unfortunately, some adware might unknowingly deliver disguised malware to devices.
  • Legal abusive adware PUA is designed to bombard you with ads to abuse sponsorship payouts. Excessive ads may be in adware itself, or in packaged software via web browser toolbars or other means. Without any malware, this is also legal at your expense. Ads for things like pornography or fitness pills appear frequently in adware like this.
  • Illegal malicious adware PUA profits from malicious third-parties who want to distribute malicious software like spyware, viruses, or other malware onto devices. This malware may be intentionally masked within the adware itself, the websites it advertises, or in accompanying software. The creators and distributors knowingly spread this threat and might use abusive methods to accomplish it.

When we talk about “adware,” we usually refer to these PUA types. The programs that abuse ads and open the door for malware are the threats you’ll want to avoid most of all.

To be clear, adware PUA is illegal if there is:

  • Lack of consent. It installs programs and collects information, without your permission.
  • Presence of malware. It is used as a vehicle to deliver the actual malware payload.

Adware PUA can be frustrating regardless of legality and can easily go undetected for a long time. To avoid any invasive or tedious software, you should know what to look for.

How Adware PUA can impact you

The above adware definition means that other than causing malvertising — displaying advertisements and collecting data — adware PUA doesn’t generally make its presence known.

Usually, there will be no signs of unwanted programs in your computer’s system tray, and no indication in your program menu that files have been installed on your machine.

Adware PUA can infect any of your devices, including computers and mobile platforms.

There are two main ways in which Adware can get onto your devices:

  • Via freeware or shareware. Adware can be included within some freeware or shareware programs – as a legitimate way of generating advertising revenues. This helps to fund the development and distribution of the freeware or shareware program.
  • Infected websites. If you visit an infected website, it can result in an unauthorized install of Adware on your machine. Hacker technologies are often used.

Once it is on your device, it may cause performance issues and compromise your privacy.

How to identify symptoms of an adware PUA infection

While there may be many ways in which an adware infection can cause you problems, there are some common ones.

One major indicator of an adware infection is that you may have asked yourself, “how do I stop commercials on my computer?" Other symptoms of adware PUA include the following:

  • An unexpected change in web browser home page.
  • Overwhelmed with popup ads — sometimes even if not browsing the Internet.
  • Slow performance.
  • Device crashing.
  • Reduced internet speeds.
  • Redirected internet searches.
  • Random appearance of a new toolbar or browser add-on.

These adware symptoms indicate some common examples of adware PUA infections.

  • Browser hijack: Displays advertisements on your device’s web browser. It may also redirect your search requests to advertising websites. For instance, your computer can be penetrated via a browser vulnerability, leaving an open door for stealth installation via Trojans.
  • Trojan spyware: Collects data on your activities and does not notify you that it is gathering information. It may collect marketing-type data about you — for example, the types of websites that you visit. In worse cases, it may steal sensitive data like your email account logins, credit card number, or other valuable information.

Adware PUA has gotten more aggressive in recent years. We’ve seen some software embed itself deep into systems with rootkits to make removal challenging.

If you’re infected, you’ll need to take steps to clean your system of the offending applications.

Detecting and removing Adware and other PUAs

Adware PUA removal will help fix adware problems like obnoxious popups and hidden spyware.

Manual removal does not guarantee you’ll find all the components. For a reliable solution, cybersecurity software will assist you in cleaning anything you wouldn’t find on your own.

To break it down, you’ll need to detect and take action on each of the following issues:

  • Adware: Legitimate ad-supported software may be fine to keep — as long as it operates with your consent. Adware or third-party software becomes PUA when it was either installed without your knowledge or does things you wouldn’t like it to do.
  • Adware PUA: Adware and sponsored third-party software can be obnoxious at best, and a gateway for actual malware at worst. Either way, you’ll likely want to remove these.
  • Malware infections: Malicious programs may have already infiltrated your system. You’ll need to remove these to stop the immediate threats to your privacy.

Installing a product that has “anti-adware” abilities will be your first step. Software suites like Kaspersky Internet Security offer system scanning and removal of adware and other threats.

Checking that your security software’s adware detection settings are active is your next step. Your security software might not detect and remove adware by default. As we mentioned earlier, many reputable software programs are ad-supported to offer their software for free.

Often, legitimate adware programs do not have any uninstall procedures of adware components. Some can use technologies that are similar to those used by viruses to penetrate your computer and run unnoticed. This again is not inherently malicious, as the ads are part of your agreement for getting free software.

Note: Many freeware and shareware programs stop displaying adverts as soon as you’ve registered or purchased the program. However, some programs use built-in, third-party adware utilities. These utilities can remain installed on your computer after you’ve registered or purchased the program. If you remove the adware component that may cause the program to malfunction. This is legitimate and should not be disrupted if you’ve consented to the terms of the product. If you feel unsafe, stop using the product and remove it entirely.

Since there may be valid reasons why adware is present on your computer, antivirus solutions may not be able to determine whether a specific adware program poses a threat to you.

Kaspersky’s products give you the option to detect adware — and how to react to it:

Option #1: Adware removal. Kaspersky’s antivirus software will help you to get rid of the adware. There can be many reasons why you suspect that an adware program — detected by Kaspersky’s antivirus engine — may be a threat:

  • You didn’t consent to the installation of the program.
  • You don’t know where the program came from.
  • You’ve read a description of the program on Kaspersky’s website and you now have concerns over its safety.

Option #2: Choosing not to detect adware. Kaspersky products let you disable the option to detect these programs – or let you add specific programs to a list of exceptions – so that the antivirus engine will not flag this adware as malicious. You might do this if:

  • You’re confident that it is a program that you have consented to.
  • You know where the program comes from.
  • You decided that after reading up on the program’s description that it is not harming your devices or data.

Cleaning out unwanted adware and other PUA is a solid start for boosting your cybersecurity. To minimize your risks, it is important to know how to prevent adware infections in the future.

How to protect yourself from Adware PUA and Malware

Preventing adware is the best way to avoid having to deal with these issues in the first place.

Practicing healthy upkeep of your computer and behaving safely is good for your security as a whole. In general, you’ll be more protected against all cyber threats if you:

  • Keep all software updated. The most recent updates for your apps, system drivers, operating system (OS), and other software have security fixes in them. Developers constantly discover vulnerabilities and patch your software to protect you from threats.
  • Be cautious, not curious. In the digital world, treat anything unknown or unusual as a potential risk. Hackers take advantage of everything from USB charging stations to impersonating your friends on social media to infect you with adware and malware. Always ask yourself, “what’s the worst that can happen if this is bad,” and take caution.
  • Watch for the fine details. Whether it’s a legitimate program installation or a link in an email, always pay attention to what you’re opening or accepting. Criminals try to mimic trusted URLs, email addresses, and social media profiles to catch you off guard. If you take a moment to examine these, you’ll find odd details that are red flags for scams.
  • Keep your activities legal. Aside from the obvious risks, pirating media and software puts you closer to seedy criminals that take advantage of your desire for “free stuff.” These services might encourage adware installs or are carrying infected downloads — whether they know it or not.

When you’re downloading free computer software, mobile apps, or browsing the web:

  • Always read all terms and checkbox agreements before clicking "next" during software installation. Many sponsored third-party software is opt-out, meaning you’ll have to uncheck a box to avoid installing any accompanying PUA.
  • Only download programs from trusted, reputable sources. You should try to only download from brands you recognize. Be sure that they have a trustworthy history as well. Official app stores like Google Play are not completely free of malicious apps, but they are more likely to keep you safe.
  • Read reviews. Everything from browser extensions to computer programs should have reviews somewhere online. Search for user feedback and take note of the negatives.
  • Look before you click (or tap). Some ads rely on social engineering to take advantage of unintended clicks. Fake close buttons carefully placed confirm buttons, and spontaneous popups all get you to click an infected link. Be sure to avoid falling for it.

If you have antivirus security software like Kaspersky Total Security, you already have one of the best solutions to protect against adware.

Because security software actively guards against malicious or PUA app downloads, scans attachments and links, and blocks popups. Your behavior in the digital world is your first line of defense. However, cybersecurity programs are essential when it comes to protecting yourself against adware threats.

Related articles:

What is Adware: What You Should Know and How to Protect Yourself

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