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Adware is the annoying little cousin to the larger problem of malware. While technically not an illegal program, there is a bit of malice behind each adware download. From incessant pop-up ads, flashing banners, and continuous digital clutter to reduced device performance, adware is a nuisance at best and a gateway to more malware at worst.
Adware can be downloaded purposely or hidden in another process — either way, prevention and clean-up tips are a must. Using ad blockers, downloading good antivirus software, visiting legitimate download sites, and minding cybersecurity safety tips are all preventative measures to keep you ad-free.
Whether it’s intentional or not, adware doesn’t have to stay in your device’s system. The information below can make you an adware expert. Let’s explore what adware is, how you can get it, and how to remove it.
How do you get adware?
How do I know if I have adware?
How do I remove adware?
Best adware removal tools
How do I avoid adware?
What is adware?
Adware’s definition is debated and sits in a gray area. On one hand, it is a form of malware because it isn’t something you choose to put on your device. On the other hand, it does not destroy the function of your machine or threaten to extort funds from you if you don’t follow a set of directions.
Adware isn’t the advertisements you see on websites, as it has to be downloaded onto your computer or mobile device. It may, however, feed data to those advertisers so you receive targeted ads. This turns into payment from those advertisers to the adware software developers. The program watches your internet browsing habits and reports back to advertisers so they can show you advertisements that might entice you to purchase their product.
You may download adware legally, since it can piggyback onto your computer from software you consensually download. It’s often found in free programs like freeware or shareware. This includes free downloads and software trials that you download.
If you aren’t paying for software, you’re the product. This is especially true with adware. Many developers will offer a free program and slide in the adware so they get paid by advertisers (rather than by you, the consumer).
5 types of adware
There are several types of adware, but all arrive in one of two ways: the kind you know you’re downloading and the kind you don’t.
1. Legitimate adware
Also known as advertising-supported software, this usually comes in a software package with a program you want. The developer offers the product for free in exchange for downloading and running their adware. As long as you have the software installed, the adware collects your data and sells it to advertisers.
Legitimate adware might seem like a good trade-off, but it becomes increasingly creepy as ads become more specific and targeted. Your best bet is to pay for the software you want to download. If you’re downloading from a reputable site, you can usually purchase the software without the additional adware tacked on.
2. Potentially unwanted applications
Potentially unwanted applications (PUAs) and potentially unwanted programs (PUPs) are found in legitimate adware and aren’t usually malicious. These types of adware are considered legal because they’re included in the free software download terms and conditions, which you must agree to prior to download and installation.
3. Legal abusive adware
This type of adware is technically legal because it isn’t depositing malware onto your system. It can, however, become extremely aggressive with pop-up windows and cause poor machine performance. It’s considered abusive because of the number of unwanted advertisements forced on you. It can also cause your computer or mobile device to slow down significantly.
4. Legal deceptive adware
Again, this type of adware is still legal because the intent is not to harm. Instead, it makes uninstalling third-party software more difficult.
Because of this program’s nature, it may unintentionally give your device malicious files, programs, or other forms of detrimental malware. It does this by allowing malware to piggyback onto an adware download and weakening your device’s firewall security so malware might sneak through a hole created by the adware.
5. Illegal malicious adware
This is the meanie of the group. Illegal adware includes spyware, ransomware, computer viruses, and other malicious software with the potential to ruin your operating system and extort funds. This is illegal to distribute because of the intent behind its use.
While you wouldn’t willingly consent to downloading this type of program, it may come wrapped up with legitimate adware and free software downloads or get deposited on your device thanks to hackers.
How do you get adware?
Adware is typically downloaded from free software, free plugins, free apps, or free software trials. The terms of service may mention that you’re downloading the adware, or they may slip it in without your knowledge. You can also get an adware infection while downloading pay-to-use software from an unreputable site.
For instance, let’s say you want Microsoft Office Suite and find a website offering free downloads. Even though this is legitimate software from a legitimate company, the third-party website offering it for free has installed adware on it. Once you download and install the program, the adware goes to work collecting your data. The third-party site then makes a commission off every ad shown to you. This is why it’s important to only download from the creator’s verified website. Better to pay for the software than to expose your personal data.
The second way to contract adware is simply by browsing the internet. Webpages are made of strings and strings of code, and malicious code can be integrated into those strings to wriggle its way into your device. While this is more prevalent on sketchy websites, a reputable website may undergo a hack that allows the cybercriminal to implant unwanted software into the site’s established code. Either way, the code finds a way into your machine via a vulnerability in your browser.
Ensure you’re aware of tips to stay safe online so you can avoid these browsing pitfalls.
How do I know if I have adware?
The most obvious way to know if you have adware is by visual and settings changes. If you’re suddenly inundated with pop-up ads or your browser or browser homepage mysteriously changes, adware is likely present on your system. In short, adware could be to blame if your computer starts acting differently and you haven’t made any changes.
Additional signs of infection include:
- Webpages not displaying correctly in your web browser
- Computer or phone feeling slow or “buggy”
- Computer or phone crashing
- Slow internet connection
- Internet searches redirecting to other websites
- Toolbars or browser extensions mysteriously appearing
- Mobile battery draining faster than usual
- Higher than normal mobile data usage
If you’d like to check whether common adware programs are installed on your device, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a handy reference guide to the 300+ most common forms of adware. You can search to see if these are present on your device.
It’s worth noting that you should not delete anything from your device unless you’re sure it’s an unwanted program. You can follow the removal instructions below or do an internet search for the program you think may be suspicious. Ensure you know everything about the program before deleting it to avoid removing a necessary program or process from your machine.
How do I remove adware?
There are several methods to return your device to its pre-adware state.
Restore from a backup
If you regularly back up your files, you can perform a system restore and bring your computer back to the state before you noticed the adware infection. This system requires preplanning and preventative care and may not be the best option if you’re suddenly struck with adware and haven’t performed regular system backups.
Manual removal is an advanced method for people comfortable with their computer’s processes and programs.
Search for specifically named adware on your system and delete it using your computer’s install/uninstall functions. This only works if you know what you’re looking for and are confident you won’t remove something vital to your system.
Adware removal tools
This is the best option for ensuring you aren’t removing viable programs. Legitimate adware removal tools will recognize the adware on your system and remove it for you. This leaves necessary processes in place while cleaning your machine. This is our recommended method for adware removal.
Best adware removal tools
Once you’re ready to search for and remove adware, there are plenty of options for removal tools. Using a trustworthy tool ensures you remove only adware — and all of it. Free and paid tools are available.
If you want software with an all-inclusive approach to adware prevention, detection, and response, you may want a paid product. TotalAV offers real-time malware prevention and protection, as well as all the other benefits of antivirus software.
Norton 360 is a great antivirus software, especially for people who aren't very technically savvy. It offers a clean user interface and plenty of guides for set-up. Norton provides real-time adware protection, as well as bonus features like a VPN and dark web monitoring.
McAfee is one of the most trusted antivirus programs, especially if you need to protect the whole family. It offers automatic and manual virus scanning options across unlimited devices. Additionally, it includes bonus safety features like parental controls and identity theft protection.
Malwarebytes has been around for a long time and is trusted in the industry, boasting strong detection and removal capabilities. It offers a free version that includes manual scans for malware. The paid version offers more features (like real-time protection).
If you’re trying to decide between free or paid remover tools, it might boil down to what extras you want. If you’re in the market for antivirus software, go with one that includes a malware and adware remover. If your main goal is cleaning your machine, you can do that with a free tool. Either way, it depends on your preferences.
How do I avoid adware?
You likely can’t completely avoid adware, but you can reduce your chances (and your headaches) by following these simple steps to avoid adware.
1. Keep patches current
Avoid picking up unwanted adware from malicious sites by patching your software and regularly used programs.
2. Stay legal
That free software download might be enticing, but you could end up paying much more by cleaning a malware-riddled machine.
3. Read the fine print
Remember to read all of the terms and conditions when installing a new piece of free software or a free trial. Adware is often slipped into these free downloads so the developers can recoup revenue.
4. Download from trusted sites
When searching for software you want to download, it’s important to use a reputable site. The original software publisher is usually the safest. You can also download from sites like Ninite, which can bundle your download into one package.
If you’re downloading an app to your smartphone, be sure to use the official app store. For Android devices, this is the Google Play Store, and for iPhones and iPads, this is the iOS Apple App Store. The official app stores scan software applications for different types of malware — including adware — and remove any malware-infected apps so you don’t accidentally download them.
5. Be wary of social engineering scams
Social engineering scams rely on you clicking on a suspicious link. You can avoid unwanted adware by knowing how to recognize and avoid these scams.
6. Read reviews
If you want to download a free piece of software, try an internet search for product reviews. If someone previously found adware in the software, they probably already reported it online.
7. Use antivirus software
Antivirus software is meant to prevent unwanted programs from installing on your device. Make sure you have the best antivirus software (and keep it updated).
8. Use an ad blocker
Is adware a virus?
Technically, no, adware is not a virus. It’s software designed to harvest your data and serve you ads. Advertisers pay these software developers for the information they collect. So, while adware is not technically a virus, it does allow someone to use you for profit.
Is adware illegal?
Adware legality depends on its intent. If it intends to harvest your data and/or serve you targeted online advertising, then it’s not illegal. It is considered illegal if it deposits malware onto your device without your permission.
Is adware harmful?
While most adware will not harm your device, it can lead to aggressive advertising that hinders your internet browsing experience. Adware’s harm lies in its intent and reception. If you find the ads harmful, then yes, adware can be harmful.
Can I block adware?
Yes! You can use free programs like Adblock Plus to prevent adware from interrupting your browsing experience.
Adware is annoying and can be harmful. These unwanted programs can run on your computer, spy on you, and sell the information they collect to advertisers — who can become increasingly aggressive in their pursuit of your money. While not technically illegal, adware feels immoral.
Increase your ability to prevent and remove these nuisances from your machine by staying diligent online. With preventative tools like an ad blocker and clean-up tools like adware removers, you can keep your device’s health at 100% — without worrying about spying companies looking for a way to gain a quick buck. Privacy doesn’t have to be an option.