What Is Adware and How Do I Remove It?

Last edit: September 21, 2021
What Is Adware and How Do I Remove It?

Adware is a prevalent threat in the vast network of the Internet. It’s so common because, as you’ll find out, it’s remarkably easy to distribute and fool unsuspecting victims. The following article contains everything you need to know about what adware is and how to protect yourself from it.

What is adware?

In short, adware is unwanted software that displays ads on a computer, typically in the web browser.

In addition to desktop computers, adware can also infiltrate mobile devices, often covering the entire screen with intrusive pop-ups. Although adware is not necessarily harmful, it definitely has the potential to be.

Typically, adware creators distribute this intrusive software for ad revenue. Whenever a user clicks on an ad (pay-per-click), sees it (pay-per-view), or installs a program (pay-per-install), revenue is generated. This is adware at its most innocuous — not particularly harmful, but extremely annoying.

Some adware is even used to record and collect data regarding your online activities. Once obtained, this data is then sold to advertisers so they can better bombard you with targeted ads. Simply clicking on an adware-laced ad is enough to lead to a serious malware infestation — this is where things begin to get serious.

Although adware is not necessarily harmful, it definitely has the potential to be.

Before we dive further into things, you need to understand that there is a difference between regular ads (from free ad-supported programs/apps or websites) and malicious adware that is intentionally installed onto an unsuspecting user’s device. This article will focus on the latter — unbidden adware that either records your online activity or infects your devices with harmful malware.

How does adware infect my computer?

adware_graphics

Source: Malwarebytes

Like most forms of malware, adware infects devices in a sneaky manner. It can be found hidden within downloadable software that comes from dubious sources, including illegal torrent websites, the dark web, and other unsecure websites. Still, even some reputable programs and download platforms have been known to contain malware-laced adware.

Keep in mind, some downloadable software will allow you to view the complete list of contents bundled into a software package. Before clicking “Next”, be sure to carefully read over the text to make sure you know exactly what you’re installing.

Unfortunately, some software installation tools only mention what extra software will be installed in the EULA. Other more dangerous software installers have even been known to inject adware or potentially unwanted programs (PUPs) into devices without warning.

Software installers have been known to inject adware or PUPs into devices.

Did you know that adware can infect your device just by simply visiting a website? Whether it be a trusted website or a suspicious one like an illegal torrenting or movie streaming platform, if you land on one, you may be in trouble. Hackers exploit browser vulnerabilities in order to inject adware into a website.

Should you be unfortunate enough to visit an infected website, adware or another form of malware will find its way onto your system via drive-by downloading — no clicking necessary. Of course, clicking on infected ads is another way that malware can spread throughout your device.

It’s not uncommon for adware to disguise itself as legitimate software to trick you into installing it. In this case, it functions like a Trojan as it wears a disguise to infiltrate your device and steal your sensitive data.

Statistics

According to Malwarebytes’ 2021 State of Malware Report, adware was the most detected form of malware on Windows, Mac, and Android devices in 2019 and 2020.

Malwarebytes — top consumer malware categories in 2020 compared to 2019

Source: Malwarebytes’ 2021 State of Malware Report

Furthermore, adware was the second most detected threat to businesses in 2019 and 2020:

Malwarebytes — top business malware categories in 2020 compared to 2019

Source: Malwarebytes’ 2021 State of Malware Report

In their IT threat evolution Q1 2021, Kaspersky reports that in 2020, most malicious objects detected on macOS platforms were adware. The creators of these adware programs have begun updating their code to include support for the first Apple-designed processor — the M1 chip.

Moreover, according to Check Point Research, adware is the most widespread type of malware found on mobile devices. Hiddad, short for “Hidden Ad”, was the most common genre of adware used throughout 2020. Hiddad stays hidden from view and operates by displaying ads that collect system information.

Check Point Research: Top mobile malware globally in 2020.

Source: Check Point Research Cyber Security Report 2021

Adware was the most detected form of malware on Windows, Mac, and Android devices in 2020.

Signs of adware infection on your computer

Typically, you won’t notice adware programs installed on your computer unless they’re browser or toolbar extensions. Thankfully, you can detect and remove adware easily using a strong adware removal solution, such as Bitdefender or Kaspersky. In any case, the following are some telltale signs that your browser has been hijacked by adware:

  • You get bombarded with ads, including pop-up ads, full-page ads, banner ads, desktop notification ads, etc.

  • New toolbars, extensions, and/or plugins have been installed in your browser — any browser can be a target.

  • Your web browser’s homepage has changed without your knowledge or consent.

  • Your default search engine has changed.

  • Some of the websites you often visit aren't appearing as they should.

  • When you click on a link on a website, you get redirected to an unrelated website.

  • Your browsing load time is significantly slower.

  • Your browser frequently crashes.

  • You can’t close pop-ups; new ones constantly pop up.

  • Pop-up ads contain bogus virus detection solutions or other suspicious messages.

Adware on Macintosh devices

Mac computers are not bulletproof when it comes to malware. While it’s true that macOS has stronger protection features than Windows, Macs are not entirely immune to malware — including adware. As such, an adware removal solution for Mac is highly recommended.

In fact, adware is the most dominant form of malware detected on macOS platforms, according to Malwarebytes. This is partly due to Apple’s ever-growing user base. Another reason for this predominance is that adware is much easier to propagate than other malware forms.

Lastly, NewTab was the main culprit when it came to adware detections on Mac in 2019. NewTab is a form of malicious adware that redirects web searches to provide cybercriminals with illicit affiliate revenue. Mac users unknowingly install it through browser extensions that look like standard, legitimate applications.

Whether you’re a Mac user or a Windows user, be on the lookout for the following adware warning signs: online ad spamming, browser hijacking, slow computer response time, and frequent crashing. Oh, and think twice before installing a browser extension!

Adware is the most dominant type of malware detected on macOS platforms.

Adware on Android

As previously noted, the security research company, Check Point, determined that adware is the most common type of mobile malware. Adware can infect your Android devices in several ways; one method is by exploiting a vulnerability in your web browser. Hackers exploit this vulnerable area as quickly as possible before a developer has the chance to apply a security patch. If your browser becomes infected, then you’ll be bombarded with a never-ending string of intrusive pop-up ads in no time.

Adware can even make its way into your devices via official app markets like Google Play and App Store. For example, the Agent Smith app imitates popular apps and is responsible for affecting millions of devices with fraudulent ads for financial gain.

Another common way that adware infiltrates Android devices is via apps from unofficial app stores. Corrupt apps may contain adware that illicitly gains ad revenue or leads to more sinister attacks through ransomware or other forms of malware. As far as adware removal on Android is concerned, we recommend an adware scanner and removal apps like Bitdefender or McAfee.

Adware is the most common type of mobile malware.

How to prevent adware

Luckily, you can avoid becoming a victim of adware by following a few simple rules:

  • Update your software. It’s especially important to regularly update your operating system, browser, anti-malware program, and other software to prevent an adware infection. Software patches often strengthen any existing vulnerable areas and are a great way to protect against cyber threats.

  • Don’t be so quick to download and install new programs or apps — especially freeware. If you don’t need it, don’t install it. Read online reviews to see what other users are saying.

  • Don’t click on pop-ups and use a pop-up blocker. These ads sometimes contain malicious adware or other threats. Consider using Google Chrome; it blocks pop-ups by default. To turn this feature on, go to Settings > Security > Site Settings > Pop-ups and redirects. Every major browser should have a built-in option to block pop-ups.

  • Read the terms and conditions before installing new software. If you don’t have time for that (understandably), try skimming the text while keeping an eye out for the names of any additional software that will be installed.

  • Avoid illegal downloads from torrent websites and illicit movie streaming sites. Sure, free games and films may seem attractive; however, torrenting sites are often laced with malware. Illegal streaming sites aren’t much better, often containing ads or links that lead to malware infestations.

  • Never download or open files from unknown sources, such as emails or texts, that look like phishing attempts. Be aware that phishing attempts often come from friends, family, and associates who have had their accounts hijacked. To spot a scam, look for red flags, such as odd-looking URLs and email addresses, bad grammar, and urgent requests.

  • Never install apps onto a mobile device from unofficial sources. Although official app markets like Google Play and App Store may contain corrupt apps that can distribute adware or other forms of malware, they are the safest places to download apps. For additional safety, don’t download apps from any third-party Android stores or jailbreak your iPhone.

  • Use an ad blocker. Ad blockers work great when it comes to blocking most types of ads on the web. Better yet, these tools can even be used to block malicious ads and pop-ups. Still, ad blockers do not guarantee that all malicious advertisements will disappear.

  • Use a reputable antivirus solution, such as Norton and Kaspersky, to remove existing malware and warn you regarding potential adware and other threats.

How to remove adware

Adware can be difficult to remove, but once you have a better understanding of what it is, you’ll have a much better chance of getting rid of it once and for all.

If any adware or potentially unwanted programs (PUPs) have been installed on your computer, you can locate them via the Apps folder/window. PUPs and software containing adware can be uninstalled manually without specialized tools; however, overly malicious forms of adware cannot be removed in this fashion. Not to mention, you may not even know which program is the culprit.

The easiest way to remove adware is to use an antivirus solution like Norton or McAfee. These antivirus programs scan your system for malicious software and remove all traces of any detected adware.

The easiest way to remove adware is to use an antivirus solution.

FAQs about adware

What is an adware virus?

An adware virus is malicious software designed to bombard a user’s web browser with ads and pop-ups. Keep in mind, adware itself is different from a virus. A virus is a piece of code that infects a computer and spreads to other devices, doing various levels of harm along the way. In contrast, effective adware latches onto a user’s system, making money for its owner through ad revenue, data theft, and other malicious means.
 
A reputable anti-adware program like Bitdefender can help you keep adware at bay on your computer or mobile device.

How dangerous is adware?

The impact that adware can have on your system ranges from mild annoyance to data breaches that can lead to substantial privacy and material loss. Thus, adware not only bombards you with ads, generating ad revenue for its owner, but it can also inject malware into your device, leading to severe damage. 

Steer clear of adware and its related threats using a trusted anti-adware program.

How do I remove adware?

The best way to remove adware is by using a cybersecurity suite. These adware removal tools can scan your computer for adware and related potentially unwanted programs (PUPs), removing them with your permission.

How can I detect adware?

You can detect adware by using an adware prevention & removal utility. These cybersecurity software programs are equipped to detect and uncover hidden adware in the form of browser toolbar malware, scripts, or other potentially unwanted programs (PUPs).

Octav Fedor (Cybersecurity Editor)

Octav is a cybersecurity expert and senior editor at AntivirusGuide. When he’s not giving his honest opinions about security software on the web, he enjoys playing the occasional video game, watching astronomy documentaries, and fiercely competing at the local pub quiz with his friends.