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What Are Keyloggers and How to Protect Against Them

Katarina Glamoslija Katarina Glamoslija What Are Keyloggers and How to Protect Against Them

Keyloggers (short for keystroke loggers) are computer programs that track and record your every keystroke in order to gain access to your personal information, such as your passwords and credit card details.

Imagine hackers lurking in your system, watching your every move…  that’s the reality of keylogging. A keylogger can exist as both a piece of spyware software or – scarier still – a hardware device, recording every button you press on your keyboard.

But keyloggers don’t have to be frightening. By learning how to recognize them, avoid them and remove them, you can successfully take away their power and keep yourself and your devices safe.

We’re going to show you how to do that.

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What Are the Risks of Keyloggers?

Keyloggers record and transmit everything you do with your keyboard and mouse. That means every word you type – even words you type and then subsequently delete. It means every email you send, every chat message, every Skype message, every Slack message, every tweet, every Facebook update, and every URL your type into your browser.

Using keyloggers, cybercriminals can quickly intercept:

  • Passwords and security answers
  • Contact details
  • Personal information
  • Intimate secrets, emails, and messages
  • Anything else you type

But there are ways to keep your devices safe from keyloggers. If you value your privacy and security, protect yourself from keylogging threats by following this guide:

More About Keyloggers

The problematic thing about keyloggers is that they are an extremely common piece of technology. Keyloggers aren’t always illegal malware; they can have everyday uses. If you suspect that your keystrokes may be being recorded, first make sure that it’s not for the following legitimate reasons:

  • Hotkeys or “key commands” exist in lots of legitimate software. These programs require keyloggers to know when you’re using a specific command.
  • Keyboard toggles allow you to change your keyboard if you’re abroad or if you write in multiple languages.
  • Parental & spousal controls can use a keylogging to track your online activity for safety reasons.
  • Company security systems often log your keys to ensure you aren’t spreading sensitive information or accessing banned domains.

Because there are plenty of “legitimate” uses for keyloggers – you can even purchase them online – they don’t represent illegal or unregulated software in the same way as, say, ransomware. As such, not every antivirus program is going to detect a keylogger as an illegitimate program.

If you are being recorded but not for the above reasons, you might have a malware infection. This type of software gives cybercriminals direct access to your accounts. For hackers, they are the ‘Holy Grail’ for financial gain, identity theft, and more, so it’s important to have software that’s able to recognize and remove keyloggers.

Common Sources of Keylogger Infections

Keyloggers are usually Trojan infections. They hide within legitimate software and downloads, working in the background once they’ve gained entry to your device. They often have the power to shield themselves from your antivirus software by using rootkit elements.

The best way to avoid a keylogger attack is to avoid contracting an infection in the first place. And in order to do this, you have to know what to look out for. Below are the most common sources of keylogger infection.

But accidents do happen and it’s not the end of the world if you have picked up a keylogger. If you’re already a victim, then take a look at how to get rid of them here.

That said, here are the most common sources of keylogger infections:

Phishing Scams

Phishing has become a universal tactic for spreading malware. Whether it’s done through emails, texts, or messages, anything from an unknown source that asks you to open a link, download a file, or respond with personal information is very likely a threat and should be deleted immediately.

Infected Links

Bogus links exist everywhere on the internet. Try to avoid clicking on any shortened URLs, banner ads, or suspicious hyperlinks. If a friend messages you with a link to click, double-check with them that they actually sent it before taking action.

Trojan Apps

Third-party programs provide no security guarantees. Sometimes, they’re hiding malware infections and viruses in Trojans. Always stick to trusted developers when choosing apps, and be sure to read reviews thoroughly before downloading anything.

Hardware Keyloggers

It’s also possible to introduce a keylogger to a device by BIOS-level firmware or by plugging a keylogging device into a USB slot. While it’s unlikely a hacker could access your home devices this way, be on the lookout when using public devices or internet cafes.

How to Spot a Keylogger

Once inside your computer, keyloggers are hard to detect – they’re tiny, lightweight programs. Some of them infect your browser by disguising themselves as ordinary browser extensions. Others hide deep inside your computer – sometimes inside your computer’s firmware. Because your computer’s firmware is outside of the regular operating system, many AV programs can’t detect them.

With no obvious symptoms of infection, you have to be on the lookout for more subtle changes, such as:

  • A general reduction in device performance, including speed, bugs, lags, and crashes
  • A delay when typing; either it takes a few seconds for the keystroke to show up, or they don’t register at all
  • Error screens or failure in loading graphics
  • Unknown processes appear when you check your Activity Monitor/Task Manager
  • Your security software flags an issue

Now that you know what keyloggers look like and where they come from, the next step is to equip yourself with the tools to stay safe.

Tips to Protect Yourself from Keyloggers

Although keyloggers are one of the nastiest malware types out there, they require the same preventive measures as other viruses to significantly reduce your chance of infection. Here’s how to avoid contracting a keylogger:

Be Wary of What you Click on

You should be able to tell the difference between a trusted domain and a site filled with infections. Pop-up ads, URL diversions, and sudden download requests should be major red flags. You should also avoid opening any emails or files from unknown senders.

Avoid High-Risk Domains

Certain websites are more likely to host infections than others. Domains you probably want to avoid include P2P file-sharing, porn, and gambling websites. If you choose to use these sites then stick to trusted and well-reviewed options.

Implement Two-Factor Authentication

It’s tricky to identify keyloggers, but you can take steps to nullify them.  Enabling two-factor authentication (a method where a user is granted access only after successfully completing two or more pieces of evidence to an authentication mechanism: knowledge, possession, and inherence).

In short, two-factor authentication on all your accounts means that your passwords are no longer enough to gain entry.

Use an Onscreen Keyboard

Use software or on-screen keyboards for inputting your banking details wherever possible. If you do have a keylogger, it won’t be able to recognize your sensitive information. Most computers come with an onscreen keyboard option already installed, which you’ll find in your list of program accessories in the Start menu. Some antiviruses, like Kaspersky, also have virtual keyboards.

Pick a Powerful Antivirus

Top-quality antivirus programs are ideal for flagging infections. Premium services keep up-to-date on new threats, so they greatly increase the chance of spotting keyloggers. Not only will these programs keep you safe from keyloggers, but they will also protect you from most other malware types at the same time.

How to Remove Keyloggers

Fortunately, once you’ve detected a keylogger infection, removing it is fairly easy. You have two options, depending on how you located the infection:

1. Automatically

Perform a full system scan using your antivirus (Norton is my favorite). The program should identify and quarantine the infection, and then you will be able to delete it entirely.

2. Manually

You can also locate malware with most high-quality antivirus programs. Once you’ve identified its location, simply drag and drop the file into your computer’s trash and delete the folder completely.

The Best Antivirus Programs for Keylogger Protection

Our experts at Safety Detective have tried and tested the most popular antivirus programs available on the market. And while each antivirus has its own expertise and its own specific goal, not all of them are best for protecting you against more severe forms of spyware such as keyloggers.

So what are the best tools for catching keyloggers before they’re maliciously installed on your device? Here are our recommendations.

Stay Safe & Type with Confidence

Keyloggers are a terrifying invasion of your privacy and could have disastrous consequences. If you’re lax about your online security, then you face a much greater risk of infection.

Following the above suggestions requires very little work, but these simple steps could be the difference between online safety and a cybercriminal emptying your bank account. 

The best way to stay safe is to use two measures: be hyper-vigilant about how your computer is running so that you can pick up any suspicious changes, and use security software to scan your computer for threats. Looking for a recommendation? See our top five antivirus programs for protecting you from keyloggers.

About the Author

About the Author

Katarina is a tech enthusiast specializing in cybersecurity products, data protection, and maintaining strong practices for general online safety. When she's not a "Safety Detective", she likes to play with her two cats, binge watch crime dramas, sample fine wines, and read about the origins of the universe.