What Is Adware: Everything You Need To Know

Damjan Jugovic Spajic Image
Updated:

June 01,2022

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Malware, spyware, adware - these terms can easily be confused, and some people use them interchangeably. However, they are fundamentally different, and this article will address the definition and types of adware. We’ll also focus on explaining how to recognize this threat and remove it from your devices.

Adware is a growing problem, especially because advertising on the internet is how many businesses make a profit. However, ads aren’t always just ads, as you probably know if you’re asking yourself, “What is adware?” We’re here to help you understand the basics of this type of nuisance.

Adware Definition

If you’ve found yourself clicking X on one pop-up after another, trying to close advertisements while watching a movie or reading something online, you’ve probably been exposed to adware. The adware definition is pretty straightforward: It’s software that automatically shows ads to users while they’re online. The longer this problem remains neglected, the harder it is to fix.

Apart from being annoying, it can seriously damage your device by letting malware in. When you notice significant changes in computer speed, the way pages load, and more ads than usual, it’s probably high time to do something about it. 

Adware might hitch a ride on something you installed without even knowing it, or be placed via the intentional hacking of your device. Users who are not tech-savvy might not think twice when they notice ads on their screens, but they’ll soon find themselves unable to use their devices normally.

How Does Adware Work?

Free software often comes with a catch, so pay close attention to any free program you consider, and check carefully for any hidden conditions you might be agreeing to. Usually, free software comes with a bunch of unsolicited ads, because its developers made a deal with the adware creator to include it so both parties can make money.

As always, the point of the ads is for you to click on them, intentionally or not. Both mobile and computer adware works this way. Once you click, the adware vendor will earn per each click (PPC: Pay-per-click) or every time you watch the ad (PPV: Pay-per-view). Additionally, they earn money whenever someone installs the software, which is called pay-per-install.

Recognizing Adware

Be on the lookout for several adware symptoms on your device. These signs can appear gradually or abruptly, but, in both cases, your device will act differently than usual, and these examples might indicate you need to check if adware has been installed.

Slow Internet

If your internet is acting up, but you’ve established it’s not due to ISP issues, have your anti-malware ready. Adware affects your connection because a large amount of data is being downloaded by it, slowing you down.

Crashing Pages

When your pages are closing or opening without your instructions, this is a clear sign of adware. Bear in mind that intrusive adware might not be your only concern - the same issue is a symptom of more serious malware.

Ads Everywhere

All of a sudden, ads are popping up on your screen. Some of these can be random, but others can be specifically tailored to your interests, which means adware has gotten a hold of your browser history.

Slow Computer

If the general performance of your computer is much worse than before - you’re having trouble opening files, your programs take a lot more time to finish tasks, etc. - you might be a victim of adware running in the background.

Browser Changes

The adware often changes the homepage of your browser. This can lead to more serious breaches of your device.

When it comes to mobile devices, the warning signs are similar. They include decreased device speed, quick battery drain, and increased phone bills. Of course, you’ll be seeing plenty of ads popping up, and might come across apps you don’t remember installing. Whenever this happens, consult a specialist who will advise you on which steps to take.

A man typing on a laptop

Types of Adware

There are different ways to sort adware into types. Some of them are based on how the adware gets into our systems, and others are listed based on whether they’re harmful or not. For starters, adware can infect your devices by browser hijacking or while you’re downloading software. According to that, we have two types.

On-Site Adware

When we talk about browser hijacking, we’re thinking about on-site adware. It infects you when you visit a malicious website that proceeds with installing adware on your device. If your browser acts differently, that might be the first adware warning sign. The typical adware manifestation follows - you’re seeing ads that are hard to close, and no matter how many times you close them, you’ll be getting more. Some may think that these ads are the part of the website they’re on, but it is, in fact, your browser that is now infected, and the ads are coming from it.

Downloaded Adware

When you’re installing a free program from the internet, the adware can be included with it. Soon after the installation, the first ad pop-up might appear. The creators of the freeware or shareware use the profits from ads to develop their business. Freeware is a program that’s free of charge, and shareware is a free program that is being shared so that its pricing can later be established.

It is important to note that this form of adware is not usually dangerous, and users are aware the ads will be included. On the other hand, sometimes spyware is included to analyze the content you’re looking for, so the relevant ads can be shown. Removal will usually require an adware cleaner or an anti-virus capable of removing it.

Adware can also be sorted based on whether it’s harmful. Therefore, there are potentially unwanted applications and legitimate adware.

Companies that offer free software usually afford it by asking users to agree to ads. This way, everything is consensual: Users will have to deal with advertisements, and the profit the creators will get enables them to continue offering specific software for free. This is legitimate adware. Therefore, not all adware is a virus.

On the other hand, potentially unwanted applications (PUAs) are those you did not willingly install. They are also known as PUPs (potentially unwanted programs).

The level of maliciousness depends on who distributes it and what it’s intended for. We can break them down into three types:

  • Illegal malicious adware profits from companies aiming to spread viruses and other malware by disguising them inside adware or the software it comes with. These operations are intentional, and their methods are often abusive.
  • Legal deceptive adware will often make it hard to choose not to install the accompanying software. Although this form of introducing adware into user systems is legal, some programs unintentionally bring malware with their installation.
  • Legal abusive adware is meant to overwhelm you with ads via browser toolbars or other places. If it doesn’t contain any viruses, it’s completely legal, but still annoying. 

Examples of Adware

The list of adware examples is too long to be discussed in detail, so this article will cover the most common ones.

Desk Ad

This adware gradually takes over your computer until you realize it is installed. By then, the damage is done. It redirects your traffic and shows deceptive ads. This program is easily spread via email attachments, and is self-replicating.

Dollar Revenue

Dollar Revenue adware is no longer active, but it was one of the first of its kind. The attack would affect your toolbar and then monitor your browsing activity. Eventually, it was used for a malware attack, and the creators of this program got a huge fine; on the downside, this decision was overturned a few years later.

Fireball

Fireball has infected more than 250 million computers globally, affecting many corporations. Fireball hijacks your browser and doesn’t let you change the settings, including the fake home page. Under the influence of this adware, applications no longer worked the way they should. Experts are worried that it could be used for a massive cyberattack, given the number of computer systems it has already infected.

Malware vs. Adware vs. Spyware

While malware is created to disrupt and damage computer systems, spyware’s primary goal is to collect information from users without them being aware of it. Adware shows ads on users’ computers, thus generating profit for its creators.

Removing Adware

While you can take steps to remove adware from your devices, this does not guarantee you will successfully get rid of adware and preserve all your files. The best option for adware removal is to find reliable anti-virus software with adware-removal capabilities.

Who Do Adware Authors Target?

Recent findings show that adware mainly targets individuals rather than businesses and that Mac users are affected more than others. However, there’s no distinction when it comes to browsers; all of them are equally likely to be the victims.

Protecting Yourself 

Your online security greatly depends on your habits, and it is generally better to work on prevention instead of fixing existing damage. There are a few things you can do:

    • Keep your devices up to date. One of the reasons we update our software is because experts are constantly working on finding solutions for vulnerabilities in our systems. If there was a bug or functionality problem, an update might include fixes for it.
    • Invest in a reliable antivirus. You can browse the web and find an antivirus that offers adware protection. It is much harder to mitigate the damage after adware has taken over your computer than occasionally scan your device. Online protection also means you need to secure all of your devices, including mobile ones. There are useful tips online that can help you secure your phone.
    • Avoid downloading anything from unreliable sources. Although the creator of a website you’re downloading software from may not have included any adware or malware, it can end up on it anyway. What’s more, many types of adware trace your activity, even if they don’t actively harm your device.
    • Watch who you’re buying from. If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. If you aim to save a few dollars on a new computer, this can seriously backfire if its supplier is not legitimate. Adware, malware, or spyware can come together with your new purchase.
    • Do not install “freeware” or “shareware. These products are free, but they’re not of much use if they become infected. Not all such programs contain adware, but just one is enough to mess up your device.
    • Adblocker is a must. Adblocker is an excellent solution to shield you from sketchy ads. Although some websites will ask you to disable it while viewing their content, this can be done temporarily; once you’re finished with the website, you can turn it back on and safely surf the internet. In short, if you want to protect yourself from adware, upgrade your browser with an adblocker.
    • Read the “fine print.” You’ll often be made aware that a product contains adware, but this can be placed somewhere in the middle of the terms and conditions, or somewhere else in small letters, so it’s advisable to always read everything before agreeing to download anything.

Conclusion

Adware is a problem that affects many internet users globally because we often don’t think twice before visiting websites. However, that’s not the only problem. Different types of adware can be “picked up” from downloads or unverified purchases. We can click on email links and have our screens flooded with ads distributed after installing adware.  It is essential to know that this problem has a solution - good anti-malware. 

FAQ
Is adware harmful to my computer?

Adware does not damage your computer the way malware does, but it can significantly lower the quality of your online experience with annoying ads.

How do you know if you have adware on your phone?

You might notice that your phone is working slower than usual and that apps take longer to load. Your data usage will be higher, and likely your phone bill. You might notice unusual apps that you don’t remember installing, and your battery will be draining faster. After this, if you didn’t ask yourself “What is adware?” you probably should.

Who created adware?

The creator of pop-up ads is Ethan Zuckerman, who once even apologized in an article in The Atlantic for creating such a nuisance, as his intentions were far from what pop-up ads look like today.

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