Spyware: What to do if you suspect you are being watched or hacked

Spyware! There is no such thing as 100% security. No matter how careful you are, there is always some risk that your computer will be compromised by a virus, Trojan or other type of malware. Many people don’t even know their computers are at risk because many of the “security” features built into today’s operating systems are actually hiding many of the threats to your computer.

In this article, I’m going to give you a basic understanding of what is happening when you run into one of these types of problems and show you how to stop it without having to reinstall your operating system.


What is Spyware? 

Spyware encompasses a variety of software applications that, once installed on a device, clandestinely monitor the user’s activities, collect data, and transmit it to a third party, often for nefarious purposes. This data can include browsing habits, login credentials, financial information, and more. Spyware operates covertly, often disguising itself as legitimate software or piggybacking on seemingly harmless downloads.

Its primary aim is to compromise the user’s privacy and potentially lead to identity theft, financial fraud, or other cybercrimes.

Understanding spyware and its potential consequences is crucial in the digital age for several reasons:

  • Protection of Privacy: Spyware can infringe upon one’s privacy by monitoring online activities and even recording keystrokes. Awareness empowers individuals to take steps to protect their digital privacy.
  • Preventing Identity Theft: Many spyware variants aim to steal personal and financial information. Recognizing the signs of a spyware infection can help users safeguard their sensitive data and prevent identity theft.
  • Maintaining Cybersecurity: Spyware is often a component of larger cyberattacks. Recognizing spyware can be an early warning sign of a broader security breach, enabling individuals and organizations to respond promptly and effectively.
  • Preserving System Performance: Spyware can slow down devices and disrupt normal operations. Awareness helps users identify and remove spyware, improving their device’s performance.

Types of Spyware


  • Purpose: Adware, short for “advertising-supported software,” is primarily designed to display unwanted advertisements on a user’s computer or device. It generates revenue for its creators by promoting products or services.
  • Symptoms: Adware often results in intrusive pop-up ads, banner ads, or redirecting web pages to advertising content. It can slow down system performance and disrupt the user experience.
  • Risk: While adware is primarily a nuisance, some aggressive forms may collect user data to target ads more effectively.
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  • Purpose: Trojans, or Trojan horses, are malicious software that disguises itself as legitimate programs or files. Once installed, they grant unauthorized access to the attacker, allowing them to steal data, gain control of the system, or initiate other malicious activities.
  • Symptoms: Trojans often operate silently in the background, making them challenging to detect. Users may notice unusual system behavior, unauthorized access, or data breaches.
  • Risk: Trojans are a significant security threat, as they can lead to data theft, system compromise, or the installation of other malicious software.


  • Purpose: Keyloggers are spyware programs designed to record keystrokes made by a user on their keyboard. This includes usernames, passwords, and other sensitive information, which is then sent to the attacker.
  • Symptoms: Keyloggers are typically hidden and operate discreetly. Users may not notice any immediate signs of infection. Suspicious account activity or unauthorized access may indicate a keylogger’s presence.
  • Risk: Keyloggers pose a severe threat to personal privacy and security, as they can capture sensitive information and facilitate identity theft.

Tracking Cookies

  • Purpose: Tracking cookies are small text files stored on a user’s computer or device by websites to track their online behavior and preferences. While not always malicious, some tracking cookies can be used for intrusive data collection and user profiling.
  • Symptoms: Users may notice that online ads seem to be closely related to their recent online activities or interests. However, the presence of tracking cookies is typically not immediately obvious.
  • Risk: While tracking cookies are often used for legitimate purposes, some may be part of more extensive tracking efforts or used for unethical data profiling.

How Spyware Works

Spyware works through a combination of infection methods, data collection processes, and privacy concerns, all of which contribute to its intrusive and potentially harmful nature. 

Infection Methods

  • Social Engineering: Spyware often relies on social engineering techniques to trick users into installing it unknowingly. This can include disguising itself as a legitimate program, email attachment, or enticing download.
  • Drive-By Downloads: Some spyware can be installed silently without any user interaction through vulnerabilities in software, browsers, or plugins. This method is known as a drive-by download.
  • Bundled Software: Spyware may be bundled with seemingly legitimate software downloads. Users who rush through installation processes without carefully reviewing each step can inadvertently install spyware along with the desired software.
  • Malicious Links: Clicking on malicious links or visiting compromised websites can trigger the download and installation of spyware without the user’s consent.

Data Collection Processes

  • Silent Monitoring: Once installed, spyware operates quietly in the background, making it challenging for users to detect. It may log various activities, such as keystrokes, websites visited, and files accessed.
  • Data Transmission: Spyware often collects data and sends it to a remote server controlled by cybercriminals. This data can include personal information, login credentials, financial details, and more.
  • Remote Control: Some advanced spyware allows attackers to take control of the infected device, enabling them to perform actions like viewing the screen, controlling the webcam, or executing malicious commands.
  • Persistence: Spyware strives to maintain persistence on the infected device, often by creating hidden files, registry entries, or scheduled tasks that ensure it continues to operate even after a system restart.

Privacy Concerns

  • Invasion of Privacy: Spyware infringes upon users’ privacy rights by surreptitiously monitoring their online and offline activities. This can include tracking browsing history, collecting personal messages, and recording conversations.
  • Data Theft: One of the most significant privacy concerns is data theft. Spyware can steal sensitive information, such as credit card numbers, login credentials, and social security numbers, which can lead to identity theft and financial losses.
  • Erosion of Trust: The presence of spyware erodes trust in the digital ecosystem, making users wary of online activities. It can undermine the integrity of online communications and transactions.
  • Legal and Ethical Issues: The use of spyware often raises legal and ethical questions. It’s typically illegal to install spyware on someone else’s device without their consent. Ethically, the invasion of privacy through spyware is widely condemned.
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Protecting against spyware involves a multi-pronged approach, including using reputable antivirus and anti-malware software, keeping software and operating systems up to date, practicing safe browsing habits, and being cautious when downloading or installing software. 

Signs of Spyware Infection

Recognizing the signs of a spyware infection is crucial for protecting your computer and personal information. Spyware often operates silently in the background, but it can leave several noticeable indicators. 

Sluggish Computer Performance

A significant decrease in your computer’s performance, such as slow startup, lagging applications, or unresponsiveness, can be a sign of spyware. Spyware consumes system resources and can cause these issues.

Unwanted Pop-up Ads

Frequent and intrusive pop-up ads that appear both within your web browser and outside of it are a classic sign of adware, which is a type of spyware. These ads may promote questionable products or services.

Altered Browser Settings

Spyware can modify your web browser’s settings without your consent. Look out for changes in your homepage, default search engine, or the appearance of new and unfamiliar browser extensions or toolbars.

Suspicious Network Activity

Unusual network activity, such as increased data usage when you’re not actively using the internet, can be a sign of spyware. Spyware may be sending your data to remote servers or downloading additional malicious content.

Changes in System Settings

Spyware can alter system settings, such as your security settings or firewall rules, to make your computer more vulnerable to further infections or to maintain its presence on your system.

Unexpected Crashes or Errors

Frequent system crashes, error messages, or application instability that you haven’t experienced before can indicate a spyware infection, especially if these issues coincide with other signs on this list.

Excessive CPU Usage

If you notice that your computer’s CPU usage is abnormally high even when you’re not running resource-intensive applications, it could be due to spyware running in the background.

Unauthorized Access or Account Activity

If you notice unauthorized access to your online accounts, unfamiliar charges on your credit card statements, or strange emails sent from your accounts, these could be the result of spyware collecting login credentials.

Unwanted Browser Redirects

Spyware can redirect your web searches to unfamiliar or potentially harmful websites. If your search results are consistently altered, it may be a sign of a browser hijacking caused by spyware.

Excessive Disk Activity

If you hear your computer’s hard drive constantly spinning or notice excessive disk activity when you’re not actively using your computer, it could be indicative of spyware performing data collection or other malicious tasks.

Spyware: Risks and Dangers

Identity Theft

  • Risk: Spyware can collect sensitive personal information, such as Social Security numbers, credit card details, usernames, and passwords. If this information falls into the wrong hands, it can be used for identity theft, leading to severe financial and legal consequences for the victim.
  • Dangers: Identity theft can result in fraudulent credit card charges, unauthorized bank transactions, and the misuse of personal information for criminal activities. Victims often face a long and challenging process to restore their credit and financial stability.

Financial Loss

  • Risk: Spyware may enable cybercriminals to gain access to online banking and financial accounts, compromising the victim’s financial assets. Additionally, some spyware variants facilitate fraudulent financial transactions.
  • Dangers: Financial losses due to spyware can range from unauthorized purchases and withdrawals to complete depletion of bank accounts. Victims may struggle to recover their lost funds and deal with the aftermath of financial fraud.
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Privacy Invasion

  • Risk: Spyware fundamentally violates an individual’s privacy by monitoring their online and offline activities, including browsing habits, emails, chat conversations, and more. This invasive surveillance can capture intimate details of one’s life.
  • Dangers: The invasion of privacy caused by spyware can lead to emotional distress and damage personal and professional relationships. Victims may experience feelings of violation and insecurity, knowing that their private information is in the hands of cybercriminals or malicious actors.

Data Breaches

  • Risk: In addition to stealing personal information, spyware may target organizations to access sensitive corporate data, trade secrets, customer databases, and intellectual property.
  • Dangers: Data breaches can result in financial losses, damage to a company’s reputation, and legal consequences. Organizations may face lawsuits, regulatory fines, and loss of customer trust, which can be challenging to recover from.

System Compromise

  • Risk: Some spyware can lead to a compromised system, allowing attackers to gain full control over a victim’s device. This can extend to cybercriminals using the infected system to launch further attacks.
  • Dangers: A compromised system can be used for various malicious purposes, including distributing malware, conducting Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, or serving as a part of a botnet. The victim may become unknowingly involved in cybercriminal activities.

Legal and Ethical Consequences

  • Risk: The use of spyware, especially without consent, is illegal in many jurisdictions and a violation of ethical principles. Individuals and organizations found using spyware may face legal repercussions and damage to their reputation.
  • Dangers: Legal penalties for spying on someone without consent can include fines and imprisonment. In the case of organizations, regulatory bodies can impose significant fines for data breaches and privacy violations.

Spyware Prevention

Safe Browsing Habits

  • Avoid clicking on suspicious links or downloading files from untrusted sources, especially emails from unknown senders.
  • Be cautious when visiting unfamiliar websites, and avoid clicking on pop-up ads or questionable advertisements.

Keep Software Updated

  • Regularly update your operating system, web browsers, and all software applications to patch vulnerabilities that spyware may exploit.
  • Enable automatic updates whenever possible to ensure you’re always running the latest, more secure versions.

Use a Reliable Antivirus Program

  • Install and maintain reputable antivirus and anti-malware software on your computer or device.
  • Ensure that the software is set to update automatically and perform regular system scans.

Spyware Detection

Antivirus and Anti-Spyware Software

  • Utilize antivirus and anti-spyware software that includes spyware detection capabilities. These programs can scan your system for known spyware signatures and behavior patterns.
  • Run full system scans regularly, and pay attention to any spyware alerts or quarantine recommendations provided by the software.

Manual Detection Techniques

  • Keep an eye out for signs of a spyware infection, such as sluggish performance, pop-up ads, altered browser settings, or suspicious network activity.
  • Monitor your system’s behavior and resource usage for any anomalies, such as excessive CPU or disk activity when you’re not actively using your computer.
  • Check your browser’s extensions and plugins regularly for any unfamiliar or suspicious additions, and remove them if necessary.
  • Examine your system’s startup programs and disable any that seem suspicious or unnecessary.

Browser Extensions

  • Install reputable browser extensions or add-ons designed to detect and block spyware, adware, and malicious websites. Some popular examples include AdBlock Plus, uBlock Origin, and Malwarebytes Browser Guard.
  • These extensions can provide an additional layer of protection by blocking intrusive ads and warning you about potentially harmful websites.

Spyware Removal

Using Antivirus Software

  • The most reliable and efficient method for removing spyware is to use reputable antivirus or anti-spyware software.
  • Update your antivirus software to the latest version, and run a full system scan. The software will detect and remove spyware and other malware from your system.
  • Follow the software’s recommendations for quarantining or deleting the identified threats.
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Manual Removal Steps

  • If you suspect a spyware infection or your antivirus software doesn’t detect it, you can attempt manual removal. However, this should be done cautiously, as incorrect actions can damage your system.
  • First, disconnect your computer from the internet to prevent further data transmission to malicious servers.
  • Access the Task Manager (Ctrl+Shift+Esc) and terminate any suspicious processes or applications.
  • Remove suspicious browser extensions, toolbars, or add-ons from your web browser.
  • Check your startup programs and disable any suspicious entries.
  • Manually delete spyware-related files and folders from your system, but exercise caution to avoid deleting essential system files.

System Restore

  • If the spyware infection has caused significant damage or if you’re unable to remove it using other methods, you can try using the System Restore feature.
  • System Restore allows you to revert your computer’s settings and system files to a previous state when it was functioning correctly.
  • Select a restore point from before the spyware infection occurred and follow the on-screen instructions to restore your system.

Protecting Your Online Privacy

Strong Passwords

  • Use strong, unique passwords for each online account. A strong password typically includes a mix of upper and lower-case letters, numbers, and special characters.
  • Consider using a password manager to generate and store complex passwords securely.

Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

Enable 2FA whenever possible on your online accounts. This adds an extra layer of security by requiring a one-time code, often sent to your mobile device, in addition to your password.


  • Use encryption technologies to protect your sensitive data, both in transit and at rest. Look for the padlock icon (HTTPS) in your browser’s address bar when visiting websites to ensure secure connections.
  • Encrypt your devices, such as smartphones and computers, to safeguard data if the device is lost or stolen. This can often be done through device settings or third-party encryption software.

Spyware on Mobile Devices

Risks to Mobile Devices

Mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, are susceptible to spyware infections, which can result in various risks:

  • Data Theft: Spyware can steal sensitive information stored on your mobile device, including contact lists, messages, photos, and login credentials.
  • Privacy Invasion: Spyware can monitor your activities, including calls, text messages, and web browsing, leading to a breach of your personal privacy.
  • Financial Consequences: Some spyware may attempt to access your mobile banking apps or online payment services, putting your financial accounts at risk.
  • Location Tracking: Certain spyware can track your physical location in real-time, potentially putting your safety and security in danger.
  • Battery Drain and Performance Issues: Spyware running in the background can drain your device’s battery quickly and cause performance degradation.

Prevention and Removal

To protect your mobile device from spyware and address spyware infections, consider the following measures:

  • Install Security Software: Use reputable antivirus and anti-malware apps designed for mobile devices. These apps can scan for and remove spyware.
  • App Source Verification: Download apps only from official app stores like Google Play Store (Android) or Apple App Store (iOS). Avoid sideloading apps from third-party sources.
  • App Permissions: Review the permissions requested by apps before installation. Be cautious about granting unnecessary permissions that could compromise your privacy.
  • Keep Software Updated: Regularly update your mobile operating system and apps to patch security vulnerabilities.
  • Secure Your Device: Use a strong PIN, password, fingerprint, or facial recognition to lock your device, and enable remote tracking and wiping features in case your device is lost or stolen.
  • Check App Reviews: Read user reviews and check app ratings before downloading. Be wary of apps with low ratings or negative feedback.
  • Regular Scanning: Run regular scans using your mobile security software to identify and remove spyware.
  • App Removal: If you suspect an app is spyware, uninstall it immediately from your device.
  • Privacy Settings: Review and adjust your device’s privacy settings to restrict access to sensitive data by apps.
  • Network Security: Use secure Wi-Fi networks and avoid public Wi-Fi for sensitive transactions or data access.
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Spyware: Legal Aspects

Laws Against Spyware

Various laws and regulations govern the use of spyware in many jurisdictions. These laws typically focus on protecting individuals’ privacy and personal data. While the specifics can vary by country, some common legal aspects include:

  • Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in the United States: The CFAA addresses computer-related crimes, including unauthorized access to computers and spyware-related activities.
  • General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union: GDPR sets strict rules for the collection, processing, and storage of personal data, including provisions against spyware and data breaches.
  • Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) in the United States: ECPA safeguards electronic communications from interception and unauthorized access, covering aspects of spyware and wiretapping.

Reporting Spyware Incidents

If you suspect or encounter spyware on your mobile device, consider taking the following steps:

  • Uninstall Suspected Apps: Remove any apps you suspect to be spyware from your device immediately.
  • Contact Customer Support: If the spyware is associated with a legitimate app, contact the app’s customer support or developer to report the issue.
  • Law Enforcement: If you believe your privacy has been severely compromised or you’ve suffered financial losses due to spyware, report the incident to local law enforcement authorities.
  • Data Privacy Regulators: If you are in the European Union and believe your data protection rights have been violated due to spyware, you can report the incident to your country’s data protection authority.
  • Security Organizations: Inform reputable cybersecurity organizations or forums about your experience with spyware to help others avoid similar situations and receive guidance on removal.

Spyware in Business Environments

Corporate Risks

  • Data Breaches: Spyware can infiltrate a company’s network, resulting in data breaches and exposing sensitive corporate data, customer information, and intellectual property.
  • Financial Loss: The financial implications of spyware can be severe, including the cost of data recovery, legal fees, regulatory fines, and potential loss of business reputation.
  • Operational Disruption: Spyware can disrupt business operations by slowing down systems, causing crashes, and leading to downtime, which can impact productivity and revenue.
  • Loss of Trust: A data breach due to spyware can erode customer trust, damaging the company’s reputation and potentially leading to the loss of clients and partners.
  • Legal Consequences: Non-compliance with data protection regulations or the use of spyware for unethical purposes can result in legal action and regulatory penalties.

Security Measures

  • Employee Training: Educate employees about spyware risks, safe browsing practices, and the importance of not downloading or clicking on suspicious links or attachments.
  • Endpoint Security: Employ comprehensive endpoint security solutions, including antivirus, anti-spyware, and intrusion detection systems, to safeguard all devices connected to the corporate network.
  • Network Monitoring: Implement network monitoring tools to detect and respond to suspicious network activity, which can be an early indicator of spyware infections.
  • Firewalls and Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS): Deploy firewalls and IPS solutions to prevent unauthorized access and the transmission of spyware across the network.
  • Regular Software Updates: Keep all software, including operating systems and applications, up to date with security patches to address vulnerabilities that spyware might exploit.
  • Mobile Device Management (MDM): Implement MDM solutions to secure and monitor mobile devices used for work, as these devices are increasingly targeted by spyware.
  • Data Encryption: Encrypt sensitive data to protect it in case of a breach. Encryption ensures that even if data is accessed, it remains unreadable without the appropriate decryption keys.
  • Access Controls: Enforce strict access controls to limit employee access to sensitive data and systems based on their roles and responsibilities.
  • Incident Response Plan: Develop a detailed incident response plan that outlines steps to take in case of a spyware or data breach incident. This includes containment, investigation, and notification procedures.
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Staying Informed About Spyware Threats

Security Updates

  • Regular Software Updates: Keep all software, including operating systems, web browsers, and security software, up to date with the latest security patches and updates to protect against known vulnerabilities.
  • Automatic Updates: Enable automatic updates whenever possible to protect your devices and software without manual intervention.

Industry News and Resources

  • Security News Sources: Stay informed about the latest spyware threats and cybersecurity news through reputable sources such as cybersecurity blogs, news websites, and industry-specific publications.
  • Security Forums and Communities: Participate in online security forums and communities where professionals share information, insights, and experiences related to spyware and other threats.
  • Threat Intelligence Services: Consider subscribing to threat intelligence services or receiving threat alerts from organizations that monitor and analyze emerging cyber threats.
  • Industry Associations: Join industry associations or organizations related to cybersecurity that provide resources, training, and updates on spyware and other security risks.
  • Security Training and Webinars: Attend cybersecurity training sessions, webinars, and conferences to stay up to date with the latest spyware trends and countermeasures.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is spyware, and how does it differ from other types of malware?

Spyware is a type of malware that secretly infiltrates a computer or device to monitor and gather data without the user’s consent. Unlike other malware, such as viruses or ransomware, spyware’s primary goal is information collection rather than immediate harm.

2. Can spyware infect Mac computers, or is it primarily a Windows issue?

While Windows PCs have historically been more vulnerable to spyware and malware, Mac computers are not immune. As Macs gain popularity, they become more attractive targets for spyware developers. Mac users should also take precautions and use security software.

3. Are there any legitimate uses for spyware?

Some forms of spyware have legitimate uses, such as parental control software for monitoring children’s online activities or employee monitoring software used by businesses to track employee productivity. However, these tools should always be used with consent and in accordance with applicable laws.

4. What should I do if I suspect my computer is infected with spyware?

If you suspect a spyware infection, immediately run a full system scan with reputable antivirus and anti-spyware software. Follow the software’s recommendations for removing or quarantining threats. Additionally, consider implementing the manual removal steps discussed earlier.

5. Can spyware be spread through email attachments or links?

Yes, spyware can be spread through email attachments or malicious links. Be cautious when opening email attachments from unknown senders and avoid clicking on suspicious links in emails or on websites.

6. How often should I update my antivirus and anti-spyware software?

Regularly update your antivirus and anti-spyware software to ensure that you have the latest threat definitions and security patches. Enabling automatic updates is recommended to keep your software up to date without manual intervention.

7. Is it possible to recover data lost due to spyware infection?

Data loss due to spyware can be challenging to recover, depending on the extent of the damage. Regular data backups can help mitigate data loss. Professional data recovery services may be necessary in severe cases.

8. What legal actions can I take against spyware developers?

Laws against spyware vary by jurisdiction. Victims of spyware may consider reporting incidents to local law enforcement, filing complaints with relevant regulatory agencies, and consulting with legal professionals to explore potential legal actions.

9. Are there any free tools available for spyware removal?

Yes, there are free tools available for spyware removal, such as Malwarebytes, Spybot – Search & Destroy, and AdwCleaner. These tools can be effective in detecting and removing spyware.

Final Words

To sum things up, I would say the main reasons people get spyware are:

  • They visit suspect websites;
  • They download and run programs without checking their “sources”
  • They visit suspect websites or download suspect programs from their “trusted” software sources

By the way, the first two points are actually the same thing. By visiting suspect websites, you are taking a risk of getting infected because there is a good chance those sites contain malware.

If you do decide to visit a suspect website, it is a good idea to use an ad blocker like NoScript with a separate browser (like Firefox) so you won’t be distracted by all the ads while you are visiting the site.

If you do download something, make sure it comes from a reputable source. If you have to ask “Does this come from a trustworthy source? Positively,” then it probably doesn’t.