The undercover dangers of spyware

The undercover dangers of spyware

Spyware – secret software that hijacks your browser – can become a big problem for internet users, especially those who shop online with credit and debit cards. Here’s some advice on how to stay safe.

Consumer experts urge online shoppers to protect their personal information and limit the risk of identity fraud and unauthorised transactions by shopping wisely with trustworthy online retailers. Not all online shoppers, however, adequately protect themselves from spyware, which can be installed on your computer without your knowledge and without detection.

Spyware has become a big problem for internet users, especially those who shop online with credit and debit cards. These illegal programs can remotely monitor your online use and hijack your browser, redirecting your internet usage to third parties. At their least damaging, they can slow up your computer, but at their worst they can record your keystrokes, scan your hard drive and change your system’s settings, allowing identity thieves to access your personal details, including your card details.

The main problem is that it can be installed entirely without your knowledge, sometimes through free programs downloaded from the internet or through file-sharing websites. So those who use the internet to shop or download leave themselves exposed to the danger of spyware.

Pop-ups are one way to discover whether you have spyware installed on your computer. If you have ever had a pop-up without a browser loaded, you have spyware of some sort.

There are many types of spyware and some more worrying than others. Adware is software that displays pop-up ads and has the capability to track your surfing habits and sell that information to a third party. Malware, also known as malicious software, has the ability to damage your computer. A Trojan horse, like its historical namesake, appears to be useful, but its purpose is to cause damage to your computer or compromise your confidential information. 

However, the most dangerous items of spyware are keyboard loggers and internet dialers. Keyboard loggers can record your keystrokes, such as your PIN number, passwords and other confidential information. Internet dialers can use your computer to dial long distance numbers, usually for adult chat line services overseas. These programs can install themselves through a virus, MP3 files or visiting some pornography sites. Victims won’t realise until a hefty phone bill arrives, often costing hundreds of pounds.

Pretty scary stuff. Thankfully, there are measures you can take to ensure that you can safely shop online or download. Read the licence agreement before installing free software. If you tick that you’ve read the terms and conditions when you haven’t, you may unintentionally provide authorisation to have your online habits monitored for marketing purposes. This is unlikely to install the most dangerous spyware, but it can slow your computer up with adware.

File sharing is a well-known way of installing spyware, so find out if there’s other software packaged with the freeware.

Avoid clicking on any links in e-mail or in pop-up ads offering anything for free. By doing so, you are openly inviting the most damaging spyware to be installed.

Install anti-spyware software and keep it regularly updated. Treat the spyware threat as seriously as you treat the threat of viruses. You can buy all-in-one protection programs against spyware, viruses and phishing and there are even reputable free security packages that can be downloaded.

Picture caption: Key to fraud – when you type in a card number, are your numbers being watched?