Spyware is one of the most prevalent methods that identity thieves use to collect the information needed to steal your identity. It’s such a problem that some experts estimate that nearly 80 percent of personal computers are infected with spyware. It’s also a problem that shows few signs of slowing down.
What is Spyware?
Spyware is a pretty common term, as it relates to identity theft. But what exactly is it? The easy answer is any malicious software that collects your personal information. But that answer really is too easy.
A more accurate description of spyware is that it is a group of software applications designed to collect your personal information or change the configuration of your computer without your consent. These applications can be downloaded to your computer by way of an infected file, planted without your knowledge when you visit a web site, or installed along with another software application.
What Does It Do?
Once a piece of spyware has been installed on your computer, it does one of two things: it either sits quietly in the background collecting information like account numbers, usernames, and passwords or it changes the configuration of your computer to allow a hacker access to your machine.
In the first case, the spyware is often called a keylogger – an application that logs every keystroke that you make when you’re using your keyboard. Once downloaded to your computer, keyloggers create a file where all of your keystrokes are stored, then each time you connect to the Internet a copy of that file is sent to a server somewhere else on the Web. Criminals then download that file and extract any valuable information that it might contain.
For example, if there’s a keylogger installed on your computer and you pay your bills online, order products from a Website, and fill out a registration form while you’re online, all of that information will be collected by the keylogger. Then that information is sent to the storage facility where the criminal later grabs it and separates the important stuff – your usernames, account numbers, passwords, date-of-birth, and credit card numbers. That information is then sold to another criminal who uses it for a variety of different illegal activities, including identity theft.
The other use of spyware is to change the configuration of your computer. When criminals use spyware in this manner, the program is installed on your computer and then it changes the configuration of your computer to allow that criminal to gain access to your machine, even if you’re protected by a firewall or other security software. Essentially, it’s like opening a door to your hard drive.
The criminal can then hack into your computer and either access personal information that’s stored on the computer or lock you out of the computer and use it connected to a group of other hi-jacked computers – called a botnet – to conduct some other criminal activity online. Criminals may even use your computer to send spyware and other malicious software, out to others.
One of the most difficult aspects of controlling spyware is that sometimes it’s hard to spot. Some spyware distributors have become so adept at disguising their programs that you can be infected and never know it. But more often than not there is at least one symptom of a spyware infection.
Some of the indicators that you may experience if you’ve been infected with spyware include:
• Endless pop-up windows that open one right after another as you close them.
• You type one Web address into your browser’s address bar but are redirected to another.
• New, unexpected toolbars appear in your web browser.
• New, unexpected icons appear in the task tray at the bottom of your screen.
• Your browser's home page is suddenly changed and each time you try to change it back the effort fails.
• Random Windows error messages begin to appear without explanation.
• The operations of your computer slow dramatically when you’re opening programs or processing tasks such as saving files.
The only way to know for sure if your computer has been infected with spyware, however, is to scan your hard drive using an anti-spyware application.
Protecting Your Computer
Anti-spyware applications work in much the same way that anti-virus applications work. Once you install the anti-spyware application on your computer, you can set it up to scan your files regularly. There’s just one catch: the anti-spyware program has to be up-to-date to do any good.
Here’s a truth about any malicious software that poses a threat to you: criminals are constantly updating, changing, and improving the software so that it will be undetected by protection programs. An anti-spyware application that’s not up-to-date can miss the most recent threats, leaving you vulnerable.
Anti-spyware applications look for spyware based on a signature – that’s an indicator that it might not be a safe program. However, different anti-spyware programs look for different signatures. So, a piece of spyware that is detected by one program may go undetected by another.
To help combat that, I recommend installing at least two different anti-spyware programs on your computer. Use caution when setting them up, however. Make sure that each program is set to scan your computer at a different time or the programs may conflict with each other.
Spyware represents one of the most dangerous threats to your computer if you spend any time online. Take the time to install and configure anti-spyware applications to protect your computer. Without this protection, it’s not a matter of if you’ll be infected, but when and how much damage will be done.