Adware is probably the one kind of malware (malicious software) that everyone knows when they see it. Hard not to when it’s causing pop-ups to take up most of your screen. Adware, meaning “advertising malware,” presents unwanted advertisements using intrusive and potentially dangerous methods.
Not all adware is outright horrible. At its best, it’s merely irritating. But at its worst, it can undermine your security settings to track your activities and display ads where it normally wouldn’t have access. These security breaches can then be exploited by more dangerous players. When this happens, the software is sometimes referred to as malvertising.
What does adware do to your computer?
As advertisements become more complex, so does adware. Some of the more common ways adware acts on computers are:
Infinite pop-ups: This is classic adware. Sometimes an endless stream of ads will pop up at once, while at other times closing one only opens the next like a bad game of whack-a-mole.
Spying: With one foot in the spyware family, this kind of adware tracks your activities both online and off to figure out what kind of advertisements it should show you.
Man-in-the-middle attacks: Adware like Superfish operate by redirecting all of your traffic through their system so they can display advertisements, but they do this even over what should be protected connections — like when you connect to your online bank accounts.
Slowing down your device: Loading and running advertisements draws processing power away from what you want to do, which slows down your device’s performance.
Eating up your data: Just like there’s a data cost when you download a picture or video, downloading advertisements also eats at your monthly mobile data allowance.
Is adware the same as a virus?
Adware is a type of malware, but it’s significantly different than a computer virus. Malware is the umbrella term for malicious software, with many different categories falling underneath it: viruses self-propagate, corrupting files and spreading to new hosts on their own; Trojans hide malicious code in a seemingly benign package; ransomware locks up your files and demands a ransom in order to release them. Although adware is not a virus, that doesn’t diminish the annoyance and damage to your device it can cause.
Where does adware come from?
One of the most common delivery systems for malware, including adware, is a vulnerability in your software or operating system. Developers sometimes create these holes by accident during the creation process. Hackers later find a way to exploit the software vulnerability and insert malware into your system. When it comes to adware, cybercriminals often use a drive-by-download, which exploits vulnerabilities in a browser to load the malicious code onto your system without your knowledge when you accidentally visit a malicious website.
Adware can also spread through software bundling. Sometimes app developers offer a “free” app, but bundle it with some additional secret software they got by contracting with an adware vendor. That means the app developer gets paid through the adware vendor, while you get the app for free. Sounds fine, right? Well, once you remember that the adware got onto your system without you realizing or agreeing to it — and depending on how annoying the resulting adware is — it probably doesn’t sound so fine after all.
Ultimately, adware exists to make money. Clicking on the ads it displays generates revenue for the developer. Adware can also track your search and browsing history in order to display ads that are more relevant to you. And once the developer has your browser history, they can make additional income by selling it to third parties.
Does adware break the law?
Based on the nasty effects of adware, you may be wondering, “is adware illegal?”. The answer is a bit nuanced: Adware bombards you with a ton of annoying ads, but the point at which an ad-supported app becomes adware can be a fine line. Free software that includes some ads isn’t against the law. But when an external party downloads malicious ad software on your device without your consent, it is illegal, as is the secret tracking and sale of your browsing history.
Issues of criminality aside, adware is insidious, damages your device’s performance, and is downright irritating as heck.
How to prevent adware?
As is with most kinds of malware, combining a strong antivirus tool with some simple best practices is the most efficient way to avoid annoying adware.
Keep your software and OS up-to-date: As mentioned above, hackers can exploit software vulnerabilities to introduce malware into a system. If you make sure to apply all updates as soon as they’re released, you’ll keep these holes plugged so hackers can’t get in.
Don’t be too curious: Hackers often use mysterious files, unmarked USB drives, and cryptic emails to entice people to download adware and other nasty stuff. If you’re not 100% sure what you’re getting, don’t put it on your PC, Mac, or Android device.
Pay close attention: Fake websites, warnings, and forged emails are often used to deliver adware to your device. Don’t download attachments contained in emails sent from unknown sources, and confirm that websites URLs are spelled or otherwise written correctly.
Be careful where you click: Ironically, one of the best ways to get adware is to click on an infected pop-up or banner ad. So make sure you don’t accidentally tap on something you didn’t mean to, or better yet, get a good ad blocker.
Be diligent with your downloads: Adware could be disguised as anything from a new game on Google Play to pirated software you found cheap online. Only get apps and files from online retailers you trust — using the official store helps.
How to remove adware?
While blocking certain kinds of scripts from running in your browser may help, adware is usually written with the same programming language used by legitimate websites and services. Disabling those scripts also means disabling the web as you know it. So you’ll need to carefully remove the adware only using a specialized tool.
How to remove adware on PC
You don’t want to disable the whole web, so you’ll need to remove adware on a PC the same way you’d get rid of other malware like viruses, Trojans, and spyware. You could remove things manually, but the process can be tedious and/or require a bit of advanced tech knowledge. The easiest way to remove adware is to use an adware removal tool like the one included in AVG AntiVirus FREE. AVG will scan your system for malicious code, and remove all traces of it. Then, we’ll keep you secure going forward with 24/7 protection against malware, malicious URLs, and zero-day threats — all completely free.
How to remove adware on a Mac
If you’re using a Mac, a dedicated adware removal tool is the best and easiest way to clean your system. If you want to do it manually, it’s a lot more difficult, but it is possible. First, you want to make sure the adware hasn’t installed a fake admin profile on your Mac OS, and delete it if it has. Then, you’ll have to find and delete the adware itself: using the Finder to sort your applications by install date is a good way to start, but you can refine things further by typing /Library/LaunchAgents, /Library/Application Support, ~/Library/LaunchAgents, and /Library/LaunchDaemons in the search bar and getting rid of the most recently installed files.
If you’d rather get it done quickly and easily, use an adware removal tool like the one included in the free AVG AntiVirus for Mac. While it’s a common misconception that Macs don’t get viruses, they actually are vulnerable to all kinds of malicious software. So it’s a good idea to have a line of defence against malicious URLs, drive-by-downloads, and infected attachments. AVG will keep you protected against all the nasty things lurking on the internet.
How to remove adware on Android
Is your mobile phone the problem? Adware, along with other types of malware, can infect Android phones. If your phone is acting up, you might be able to quickly fix it by removing your most recently downloaded apps, in case a malicious app snuck its way onto your phone.
Go to the Applications section in your settings, find the troublesome application, clear the cache and data, then uninstall it. But if you can’t find a specific bad apple, removing all the most recently downloaded apps could do the trick. Don’t forget to restart your phone!
For more detailed instructions, see our guide on how to remove malware from an Android phone or iPhone. For really stubborn malware, you’ll want a dedicated adware removal tool, which is included for free in AVG AntiVirus for Android.
How to remove adware on iOS
While iOS isn’t usually vulnerable to viruses or malware, jailbreaking your iPhone to install third-party apps can place it at risk. A free cybersecurity app like AVG Mobile Security for iPhone & iPad will make sure your devices stay safe and remove anything nefarious that found its way in. Our app offers other security tools too, such as a Wi-Fi network analyzer which makes sure networks are secure before you connect, and Photo Vault, which can lock up your sensitive personal photos so they can’t be accessed if your device gets lost or stolen.