What Is Spyware? Guide to a Secure Defense (2024)

Updated on: April 22, 2024
Katarina Glamoslija Katarina Glamoslija
Updated on: April 22, 2024

Spyware is unwanted software that makes its way onto your computer, often without you even realizing it, to track, monitor and get hold of your personal information.

These infections can integrate into your operating system to monitor keystrokes, edit your settings and decrease your device performance, so that it can capture sensitive data such as your login details, email and browsing history, and credit card details.

Studies show that nearly 90% of US home computers have contracted a spyware infection at some time. In most cases, this can be nothing more than an ongoing annoyance. But in other cases, the effects of spyware infections can be disastrous, causing heavy financial burdens and ongoing stress.

So how do you go about identifying, preventing, and protecting yourself from spyware? Read on to find out…

Your Quick Guide to Spyware

  1. What is spyware? Legal vs. illegal
  2. Spotting an infection
  3. How do you get infected with spyware?
  4. How to prevent spyware
  5. Most common types of spyware
  6. How to remove spyware
  7. The best antivirus to protect you from spyware

What Is Spyware?

Spyware is a type of computer infection that allows hackers access to your personal data. It can attack PCs, Macs, iOS, and Android devices. Software of this kind has many uses, some of which are legal, such as:

  • Monitoring company computers to ensure that nobody is spreading sensitive information
  • User-consented tracking for targeted advertising
  • Parental control software to track children’s online activity
  • Website cookies to customize your browsing experience

Unfortunately, at least 40% of spyware falls into a more malicious category. It’s regularly used by criminals to steal personal information from their victims for financial gain. Common spyware activity includes:

  • Obtaining your bank details to gain direct access to your money
  • Intercepting personal information, such as contacts, passwords, and web activity
  • Collecting enough personal data to steal your identity
  • Recording your browsing habits to send you personalized ads

Spyware has even been known to record instant messages and Skype calls, hijack your webcam, install keyloggers, and take photos and videos.

Spotting an Infection

Spyware can be a particularly tricky infection to spot as it can change your security settings to avoid detection. Keep an eye out for any of the following red flags that may signal an infection:

  • Pop-up ads suddenly appearing all over your computer
  • Considerably slow device speed
  • Your computer begins to freeze or crash more than normal
  • There is a drastic increase in CPU usage
  • Your default browser page changes and redirects to another site
  • Your antivirus or security software begins to malfunction
  • An increase in auto-redirects when online

While each of these factors individually may not mean anything too serious, experiencing several is a sure sign of a problem.

How Can You Get Infected with Spyware?

Spyware can arrive on your computer via many channels. However, the most common source is piggybacking spyware – basically, when a program secretly installs itself alongside another (often more trusted) program you’ve chosen to download.

We’re all guilty of downloading free games or apps to do minor jobs for us online. But if these aren’t properly vetted and reviewed, it can cause an infection.

Other ways to contract spyware include:

  • Clicking on infected ads or pop-ups
  • Visiting infected websites or domains
  • Downloading software from unreliable sources
  • Opening email attachments from unknown senders
  • Downloading media from torrenting platforms

Most Common Types of Spyware

Like other types of malware, spyware is a category that can be further broken down into unique threat vectors. While there are many different types of spyware, the four most common categories include:


This is the most common form of spyware and one of the most common threats to both businesses and consumers.

Adware detects when a compromised device accesses the internet and begins flooding the user with popup ads. And while this might be seen as more of a nuisance than anything, adware also enables attackers to spy on browser history and sell data on the dark web.


Keyloggers are one of the most subtle and dangerous forms of spyware because they allow attackers to monitor and record any keystrokes on a computer.

Think of all the different inputs this would apply to—search history, internal communications like instant messaging, email activity, browser history, system credentials, and more. All of that information can give attackers more than enough data to either sell or use as a stepping stone to more advanced threats.


Often associated with computer viruses, Trojans are malicious pieces of software that can disguise themselves as legitimate programs. Something like a harmless Java update pop-up can easily be compromised by Trojan malware that goes on to compromise sensitive information on your computer.

Unlike more passive types of spyware, Trojans can often give attackers backdoor access to your device and let them control activity. That means your data can be downloaded and exfiltrated or more malware can be uploaded to your system.

Mobile Spyware

Because mobile devices have become such a critical component of the workplace, it’s more important than ever to protect your data against mobile threats. Mobile spyware, in particular, can infect mobile employees by compromising SMS and MMS communications.

This type of malware gives attackers access to all kinds of mobile usage — phone conversations, text messaging, app usage, browser history, Bluetooth connectivity, and more.

How to Prevent Spyware

As the nature of malware is continually developing, there is no foolproof tactic to keep you safe indefinitely. The best defense of spyware is, of course, not to download it in the first place. So you’ll need to change many of your personal habits and be extra vigilant about what you’re clicking on online.

Follow these rules to reduce the chance of a spyware attack:

Use an antivirus security suite with an anti-spyware tool

If you use a good antivirus, then you’ll already be one step ahead. A decent security suite with a dedicated anti-spyware tool will stop spyware before it gets installed on your computer.

Opt for an antivirus that provides real-time monitoring, specific detection, and removal options for spyware, and make sure that it is regularly updated to combat the very latest spyware threats (Norton is my favorite antivirus in 2024).

While it’s preferable to stay ahead of spyware and avoid disaster, sometimes infection will happen. Don’t panic – it can be resolved easily if you act fast; this is where an antivirus comes in handy! See our picks for the best antiviruses on the market.

Never click on unsolicited ads

A huge percentage of online ads contain spyware. Avoid clicking on any to reduce the risk of infection. If you see something you’re interested in buying, do a search for the item/brand instead and purchase it directly from the official or a reputable website.

Read reviews before downloading software

Research any apps you’re interested in carefully before you download any and, wherever possible, only download from the official website. Most trusted products will come with reviews so always check these first to ensure you’re dealing with a trustworthy product.

Adjust your browser security settings

Browsers contain a range of security settings that allow you to dictate how your data is used. You can choose to stop cookies completely, authorize them for specific sites, or set allowances to only share some information. Monitor your security settings regularly so you can be aware of any changes.

Engage in smart browsing

Never open an email attachment or message from someone you don’t know; if you see a suspicious link from a friend, confirm that it is actually from them before you click on it. Any pop-up claiming you’ve won $1,000,000 or an iPad should never be trusted.

Avoid accidentally clicking on pop-ups when closing them

Many infected ads purposefully make it difficult to close them. They might use a fraudulent ‘X’ in their design, which tricks you into clicking instead of closing.

Be vigilant when shutting down pop-ups to avoid opening the link by mistake. Instead, press Alt + F4 or be careful to select the correct “X” on the corner of the pop-up alert to close the window.

Use a firewall

Firewalls filter the network and are a great defense for blocking risky websites, therefore making it more difficult for spyware to get onto your computer. Take a look at these antiviruses that come with firewall protection.

Educate your family about the risks

If you have young children, it’s essential they understand the risks of spyware. When surveyed, 69% of computers in homes with children under the age of 18 had spyware. Young people tend to be less risk-aware, so teach how to detect dodgy links.

How to Remove Spyware

If you suspect you’ve been infected by spyware then the first step is to turn off your internet connection. The infection works by sending your data back via the web, so this puts an immediate stop to the process. Once you’ve done this, you have two options:

Remove Spyware Using Software

  • Use a top-quality antivirus to perform a full system scan
  • If you already know where the infection is located, you can opt for a custom scan to target a specific area
  • Once you have identified the problem, use an anti-spyware tool to automatically quarantine and delete the malware

Remove Spyware Manually

If you know the source of the problem, you can remove it by hand. Open up your application menu to view all of the active programs. Identify the app that is causing the problem, right-click, and choose to “uninstall” and “delete” the program.

Be aware that manual removal does come with its risks. If you choose the wrong program, such as an operating system program, you could make your computer inoperable. Always select the option to hide system programs and do a search for the name online before deleting anything completely.

The Best Antivirus to Protect you from Spyware

The Best Antivirus to Protect you from Spyware

An antivirus solution is a powerful barrier against spyware threats. While any protection is better than none, an antivirus that offers real-time monitoring, specific spyware detection, and removal features gives you the very best protection.

Are you on the lookout for a good antivirus solution to protect you from spyware, adware, and other malware? Our experts have tested all of the popular antiviruses available on the market. Take a look at our top 10 recommendations.

Prevent Spyware & Protect your Data

As we’ve mentioned above, the very best protection against spyware is not letting it get onto your device in the first place. But quite often, it’s already too late for prevention and you need to focus instead on removing the threat from your computer either manually or by using software.

Either way, now that you’re aware of the threats of spyware, the solution is the same: follow these steps to prevent an infection in the future and, if you are infected, remove it quickly and efficiently using a good security solution.

About the Author
Katarina Glamoslija
Katarina Glamoslija
Head Content Manager
Updated on: April 22, 2024

About the Author

Katarina Glamoslija is Head Content Manager at SafetyDetectives. She has nearly a decade of experience researching, testing, and reviewing cybersecurity products and investigating best practices for online safety and data protection. Before joining SafetyDetectives, she was Content Manager and Chief Editor of several review websites, including one about antiviruses and another about VPNs. She also worked as a freelance writer and editor for tech, medical, and business publications. When she’s not a “Safety Detective”, she can be found traveling (and writing about it on her small travel blog), playing with her cats, and binge-watching crime dramas.