What Are Keyloggers and How to Protect Against Them

Sophie Anderson Sophie Anderson 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?

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

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.

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 them and remove them.

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.

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

Unlike other malware, keyloggers don’t affect the host system. While it’s good that your files are safe from corruption, it also means it can be very tricky to spot. 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.

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. 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 47 of the antivirus programs available on the market. And while each one 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

Sophie Anderson
Sophie Anderson
Cybersecurity researcher and tech journalist

About the Author

Sophie Anderson has spent the last 10 years working as a software engineer for some of the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley. She now works as a cybersecurity consultant and tech journalist, helping everyday netizens understand how to stay safe and protected in an online world.