Malware (Spyware) Detection & Removal
What is Malware?
Malware is software designed with malicious intent. It secretly gathers information about you (sometimes called spyware) or your private communications and attempts to gain access to restricted or secure systems. It then forwards this information to the malware's owner.
If your computer seems to be slow, this is one indication that you're infected. Malware runs constantly, stealing your computer's resources which slows down legitimate programs and processes.
You Need a Security Suite
Traditional antivirus software cannot deal with malware unless it contains special anti-spyware/anti-malware components and maintains a current database of malware and how to remove it. This is why the term security software is more appropriate for the suite of complementary programs that protect your computer and its data.
Potentially Unwanted Programs
Brand Name Computers with Bloatware
Some software that comes with name-brand computers is called Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUPs).
While you've agreed to install these programs when you accepted the computer vendor's license, you want to remove such programs in most cases. At the very least they are bloatware and likely a threat to your privacy or worse.
- Isn't it time we declared our independence from bloatware?
- Should I Remove It? helps remove unnecessary programs.
- Krebs's 3 Basic Rules for Online Safety.
Addons to Free Software
PUPs such as McAfee Scan, Yahoo! Toolbar, Google Chrome, etc. can be installed along with downloaded free software. This is a method many developers use to “pay” for software they provide for free.
These programs can usually be deselected either prior to download or during the install. Rather than simply clicking through the various download and installation screens, ensure that you understand what you're actually installing. If you're unable to deselect the unwanted software you may not wish to install that program.
Malware is Profitable
Unlike viruses, malware is extremely profitable.
Stealthily redirecting hundreds to sites, they can take advantage of increased advertising rates for the ads on those sites because of increased, albeit unwarranted, traffic.
- Botnets like TrickBot and Nitol are big business. They can hack banks or create grass roots political movements.
- Not all security products detect all malware.
- The Microsoft Security Intelligence Report July—December 2014 (PDF) provides an insight into how malware and other exploits are developed and used to compromise computer security.
- Fixing the #1 problem in computer security: A data-driven defense discusses appropriately aligning computer security defenses with the threats that pose the greatest risk to a company's environment.
Popup Warnings that Won't Go Away
One form of malware are popups that warn that your computer is infected but have nothing to do with any security software. These may include ominous audio warnings and are often difficult to dismiss.
These popup “warnings” are launched by visiting corrupted websites. Your browser is merely processing a malicious script launched by an infected website.
Stop and Think Before Acting
Don't panic. These are scams designed to get you to act without thinking and call the number displayed on the screen.
Calling that number will result in an expensive service contract that will not resolve any security issues. Now that you've fallen victim, they'll be sure to call you back looking for more of your hard-earned cash.
Instead, stop and think before acting and you'll resolve the issue without falling victim to the scam.
After all, you do have decent security software installed, don't you?
Firefox Critical Error Scam
One example of malware is the Firefox Critical Error. This malware is either installed by malware on your system or by visiting an infected site.
Firefox is locked with a fake login screen over a red background that contains the following warning (or something similar):
There was a dangerous try to get an access to your personal logins & bank information. Luckily your Firewall managed to block this suspicious connection.
We recommend you to freeze your accounts until some measures will be taken.
There is a great threat of leaking of your personal data.
So, you need to respond swiftly!
This is a Scam
You can't seem to close the popup, so you're tempted to call the support number or fill in the requested login information. DON'T.
- The authorization request (login screen) is an attempt to gather your username and password to be used to hack your accounts.
- Calling the phone number displayed will cost you for unneeded services and/or have your system infected with additional malware.
To get out of the “error” Windows users should press Ctrl-Alt-Del keys simultaneously (but only once) then select Start Task Manager from the menu that appears. Next, select Firefox from the list of programs then select End Task. This should close Firefox.
Cleanup Your Computer
Now you'll want to remove any recently installed programs that you've added and to do a full scan of your system with a reliable security program. You might want to consider professional help with cleaning up your computer as there are often more than one malware program installed on systems showing errors like these.
The Firefox fake login screen is only one of many variations.
Corrupted Windows Licence Key Scam
One scam reports that your Windows license key has been corrupted and offers a toll-free number to call. NEVER call the number — this is a fake “warning” and a scam run by thieves. They'll take your money and probably ask for remote access to your computer leaving you even more vulnerable.
Ignore the Audio Warnings
Perhaps the most disturbing is the audio-based warning that your computer has been infected because it doesn't seem to have any solution other than to follow the instructions.
Again, DON'T call.
Just hit Ctrl-Alt-Del once, select Start Task Manager, click on the Applications tab, then select the offending program (usually your web browser), then click on the End Task button. If this fails, restart your computer.
Security suites are strongly recommended because only such suites can deal with the multifaceted threats facing computer users today. Such suites should contain software for removing malware and spyware from your system and to protect you from future infections.
Ransomware is special form of malware which encrypts the files on your computer and holds it for ransom. Beginning with CryptoLocker and evolving from there, this class of malware cannot be recovered except by paying the ransom and hoping the thieves don't simply walk away with your money.
You can only hope to prevent ransomware infections. Recovery is seldom possible except by wiping the computer and restoring your data from (hopefully) recent backups.
I recommend ZoneAlarm Extreme Security.
For a long time Microsoft's Windows Defender provided decent (but not excellent) anti-malware protection (much better than its anti-virus protection) and most security products could work along side it.
However, the quality of protection has improved tremendously and Windows Defender has earned excellent scores in recent reviews.
After years of lagging behind competitors, Microsoft Windows Defender has earned a coveted AV-Test "Top Product" award. The free, built-in antivirus software in Windows 10 performs just as well as — or even better than — many of its paid competitors. Your Windows PC can now repel the vast majority of malware threats right out of the box. — Tom's Hardware
These reviews are for Windows Defender running on a fully-updated Windows 10 system.
Other Safe Solutions
However, running more than one alternative anti-malware product at a time may cause a conflict (they can fight each other rather than the malware).
I recommend the following stand-alone products and services to deal with malware infection, especially if you don't have a suite with built-in anti-malware protection:
- Malwarebytes Anti-Malware detects and removes worms, Trojans, rootkits, rogues, spyware, and other dangerous malware from your home PC.
- Malwarebytes Anti-Malware for Mac.
- Spybot Free Edition, available for private use, requires installation. Spybot — Search & Destroy 1.6.2 is recommended for recovery.
Beware of Fake Malware-removers
There is a disturbing trend of placing ads on websites that appear to “find” malware on your system. They offer to remove the infections if you purchase their product.
Don't fall for these tactics. Most, if not all, are rip-offs or fakes.
- Usually such displays include very large numbers of “infected” files. This is designed to scare you into immediate action before you have a chance to realize you're being scammed.
- Their placement is not always controlled by the site you've visited (many sites use external services to display ads) but their presence should deter you from visiting the site again (and certainly from purchasing anything there).
- If you buy the subscription, you're likely to get a call trying to up-sell you on other products (you've demonstrated that you're not savvy about what quality software looks like).
A similar tactic is to place prominent alternative Download buttons leading to malware and spyware software in addition to the less prominent one that links to the download you're seeking. You're best to download only from the developer's site where possible.
- Hovering over (NOT clicking on) any link in a browser should show the address it will take you to. Be wary of links that take you off-site or to mysterious domains. See How to Tell Fake Links to learn more about how website links work.
- You can search WHOIS records to determine who owns the site. Be wary of recent or short-term domains.
- How to avoid fake Download buttons provides more information.
Obtaining More Information About Malware Removal
Unfortunately, many of the resources formerly linked from this page are no longer maintained.
- Bleeping Computer virus, spyware & malware removal guides.
- 13 tips to protect you against malware.
- Microsoft's tips to protecting your computer from malware.
What is Spyware?
Spyware is ANY SOFTWARE which employs a user's Internet connection in the background (the so-called “backchannel”) without their knowledge or explicit permission. — Steve Gibson
The term “spyware” has been mostly replaced with the term “malware” and includes any program that has harmful or malevolent intent or purpose, even if it is disguised within an apparently useful program.
Your Personal Information For Sale
Internet companies, whose apparent “business model” is the exploitation of consumer trust and ignorance, are sneaking their spyware systems into our machines for their own purposes. —Steve Gibson
See Your Privacy At Risk for more.
Big Names Don't Necessarily Mean Safety
The extent of this secret information collection may shock you and is an attack on personal privacy.
Free email services like Gmail began the trend, followed by cell phone services. Unfortunately, privacy has all but disappeared as corporations seek to know anything and everything about all of us.
Uncle Sam Gets Involved
Edward Snowden revealed a huge spying network organized by the NSA and other U.S. government agencies (and their counterparts virtually everywhere on the planet) involving the largest ISPs and software companies. George Orwell must be rolling in his grave.
Company policies change and often do change. In many cases, short-term profits have proven to be more appealing than long-term loyalty to these companies.
Windows 10's New Revenue Model
Microsoft also used spyware-like tactics in forcing Windows 7 and 8 users to upgrade to Windows 10:
- Windows Update was used to install the GWX nagware which downloaded the files to the user's computer without permission.
- When it self-activated the Windows 10 upgrade, the program “interpreting” the user's closing of the offer with the red X to mean permission to install (the opposite of what it has meant on computers, including Windows systems, since the very beginning).
- To stop the upgrade you had to click next then decline the license agreement — hardly an intuitive process.
- Many users found themselves unexpectedly restarting their computers running Windows 10. In the case of one client, the update failed TWICE, requiring a clean install of Windows 7 because the computer could not recover from the uninvited upgrade.
- Microsoft also installed ads promoting Windows 10 as part of “security fixes” for Internet Explorer.
Many consultants recommended disabling Windows Update because Microsoft was deceptive in what was actually being installed (“updates to Windows”).
As a result of such tactics, I refused to upgrade to Windows 10 and recommended that my clients don't either.
Learn More About Spyware
- GRC Discussion Group for Spyware is a forum for discussion about spyware.
- The Ethics of Anonymous Surveillance for Profit displays one example of such information gathering.