What is adware, and is it dangerous?

Anton P. | April 27, 2021

Adware is a threat that blasts ads and other promotional content on your screen. Nowadays, we live in an ad-driven world, and almost every company attempts to gain traction via inviting ad campaigns. Thus, ad-delivery is a profitable business, and one that fraudsters also attempt to cash in on. Essentially, adware is software responsible for delivering ads via its own interface or injecting them in other places. It typically attempts to slither into devices unnoticed, and hopes to load as many ads as possible. With millions of users affected by it, you should check whether you are not one of the victims of adware-laced apps.

How does adware work?

Adware, or advertising-supported software, is the one known for bombarding users with ads. Its purpose is to generate as much revenue for the app owners as possible. Ad-stuffing might happen within a web browser (such as redirecting you to various promotional websites). Nevertheless, it can also serve ads directly on the desktop or within other applications.

Users typically describe their adware-related experiences as intrusive and terribly irritating. After all, adware presents full screen, pop-up, or other ads that distract users from the original content. They might even contain flashy or inappropriate visuals or information that you have no intention of seeing. Some ads could also auto-play audio content without your input.

Adware can also make bizarre changes to your device. For instance, it could include a browser hijacker capable of replacing your preferred search engine and homepage. Such corrupt programs could also attempt to remove your browser and swap it with their own.

However, the word adware does not always refer to suspicious or potentially unwanted programs (PUPs). It can also relate to applications that offer their services for free in exchange for showing ads. Thus, the source of income for these program owners comes mainly from advertising. And, in many cases, such an exchange is relatively ethical and safe. But when does adware become a security and privacy problem?

Why is adware dangerous?

Adware is not necessarily as sinister as, say, ransomware or Trojan viruses. However, ad-stuffing software undermines your experience online and might facilitate the arrival of more severe infections. Additionally, adware could invade your privacy in the sense that it might collect information about you. This data-harvesting typically means that adware owners sell the user data to various third parties. Then, these details fuel targeted advertising and user profiling.

What is more disturbing, suspicious adware might not filter or oversee the ads it presents. Thus, it can endorse bogus offers, lead to dangerous websites, or even prompt fake downloads or software updates. As a result, unsuspecting users might encounter advertisements that distribute malicious files that further compromise their devices.

Moreover, some deceptive ads could lead to sites that try to extort your personal details, including your financial information. Security experts discourage users from clicking on random ads they see. It is safer to access advertised services directly as opposed to following ads.

How can adware infect your device?

Strains of adware can use several distribution channels. According to various reports, such unwanted programs affect millions of users, and many cases might remain undetected. Thus, you should be wary of the ways ad-injecting programs typically slither into devices.

  • Deceptive apps on legitimate stores. Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store could unwittingly partake in the distribution of fraudulent apps. There are numerous cases when millions of users downloaded applications tainted with adware. On one occasion, ESET specialists had reported 42 tools that functioned as suspicious ad-serving infections. While Apple’s strict screening process typically weeds out suspicious apps, it is not immune. In 2019, researchers discovered 18 apps that secretly performed adware-like behavior. Thus, be wary of the apps you see on the app stores.
  • Copycats of popular apps. You might already live by the rule to never install unknown apps. However, what about the programs that imitate legitimate ones? Attackers could produce clones of the most popular tools to convince people to download them. One such attempt used TikTok as bait. The app in question pretended to be TikTok and specifically targeted people in India.
  • Cracked installers and other pirated content. Deceptive offers of exclusive content are also popular in getting users to download adware. Be cautious when downloading such files. It might be that instead of getting the material promised, the download will put your device in danger.
  • Tools bundled with other programs. Adware could piggyback on other programs to get inside your device. Thus, pay attention to the tools offered to you during the installation process. Always be fully aware of what exactly you chose to install. It is common for adware to imitate various system optimizers or, ironically, adware removers.

Signs of adware on your device

Adware infections might not be subtle. There are specific telltale signs that can help you find out whether you have unwanted software on your device.

  • Ads, ads everywhere. The most obvious indication is the fact you notice more ads than usual. Sometimes, these ads might appear in unexpected places, and their promoted products or content is questionable.
  • Sudden redirects to unknown websites. The infection could take you to shady sites or the ones you had no intention of visiting.
  • Ads that are difficult to close. Some pop-ups or banners might redirect you to other websites after you attempt to close them.
  • Homepage or default search engine change. Adware could replace your homepage and the search engine you have set.
  • Bizarre ads in search results. The unwanted program may inject ads into your search results. It might mislead you into visiting shady services or clones of popular services.
  • Slower browser experience. Adware could make your browser or your device more sluggish and prone to lags or crashes.
  • Unknown programs, plug-ins, or browser extensions. If adware piggybacked to your device, you might notice some tools you did not install voluntarily. Thus, check your OS and browser for suspicious software.

How to defend against adware?

Adware is somewhat secretive in its distribution manner. Users typically install it without even realizing it. Therefore, it becomes crucial to know exactly what programs you choose to install.

The first line of defense against any piece of malicious software is your antivirus or anti-malware program. Run frequent scans (or set them up to run automatically) to discover potential threats. Experts note that adware is not typically sophisticated enough to slip through the cracks of advanced anti-malware tools.

An ad-blocking software, combined with a robust antivirus solution, is also a great way to defend against adware. For instance, our VPN offers a unique feature specifically designed to block ads and suspicious websites. Thus, Atlas VPN can help you fend off redirection to websites flagged as dangerous.

Lastly, try to steer clear of unknown software and do a little research before finally deciding to get any tool. A reliable program or app should come from a reliable source and have somewhat positive reviews. Read terms of service and privacy policies to avoid adware posing as legitimate software. Many torrents or other illegal downloads can also be adware (or other malware) in disguise. Thus, the chances of becoming infected from cracked installers are much higher.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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