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12 Red Flags That Someone May Be Spying on Your Computer

Even if you're not a CEO or government official, hackers may be out to steal your private information. Here are the signs that you might be under attack, and what to do about it.

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What is spyware?

“Spyware is any piece of software that collects and transmits information without the user’s consent and with covert methods,” shares Steven Solomon, co-founder and CTO of Arcutek. It is used to gather information on a target, usually passwords, credit card, and financial information, system files, and, in extreme cases, keylogging and screen capture, he says. Find out the clear signs you’re about to be hacked.

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Your computer starts running slower

If your computer suddenly starts taking forever to turn on or open up applications, that could be a symptom of malware infection, especially a worm or a Trojan horse, warns Sophie Miles, CEO and co-founder of elMejorTrato.com. “This happens because malicious software consumes too many CPU resources, which overloads your computer and causes it to run much slower than normal,” she says. However, computers can be slow for a host of other reasons, including lack of maintenance, full hard disk, overheating of the processor, and more, so it’s not a definitive sign that it has a bug. (These are secret ways that the government could be spying on you.)

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Your fans go into hyperspeed

“One the simplest ways to tell if a machine or mobile device has spyware, crypto-mining malware, or other viruses that consume processing power is paying attention to the physical temperature and battery life of the machine,” says Bill Siegel, founder of Coveware. So if your phone suddenly needs to be charged three or four times a day, its fan is running more than half the time, and it is always hot in your pocket or handbag, this can be a sign that malware is running and burning a significantly higher amount of CPU power. Learn these tech myths that you need to stop believing.

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You used a stranger’s USB drive

Just like you wouldn’t eat food you found sitting in a library or other public place, don’t pick up any old USB memory stick and put it into your computer, advises Mike Bradshaw from Connect Marketing. And, if other people have access to your computer, whether it’s co-workers or the person sitting next to you at a Starbucks, always check to see if any mysterious drives have been plugged in without your knowledge while you were away from your machine.

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Your webcam randomly starts recording

If your webcam or microphone turns on by itself that could be a sign of an infection, says David Geer from Geer Communications. And spies aren’t only trying to see you in an uncompromising position, hackers will try to catch your various passwords as you type them in. Find out why else you may want to cover your laptop camera.

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Unknown sending and receiving

Another indicator that someone else is controlling your computer? “Blinking send and receive lights when your computer is idle is a warning sign,” says Jack Vonder Heide, president of Technology Briefing Centers, Inc.

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Your apps act up

“A known approach to data collection is injecting attacker code to the target application,” says Lindsay Hull, Senior Strategist at Zer0 to 5ive. The result is an app may run slowly or crash frequently. Here are 17 everyday things you didn’t know could be hacked.

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You start seeing more pop-up ads

“If all of a sudden you have browser add-ins or plug-ins you don’t remember installing, your machine may be infected,” says Richard Ford, PhD, chief scientist at Forcepoint. “Often, these add-ins help an attacker monetize their access to your machine. Similarly, if the web now seems full of pop-up advertisements, you may be infected.”

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Your homepage changed

“If you open your web browser and are taken to an unfamiliar page instead of your normal homepage, or if you type a search term into your browser, and another browser pops up with a list of websites for your search term, this could be a sign of spyware,” says Stacy M. Clements of Milepost 42. “This is especially true if you realize your browser settings have been modified and you are unable to change the settings.”

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Mysterious tools show up

“Other signs of potential spyware are files appearing on your computer, or toolbars and tray icons that you didn’t install suddenly showing up,” Clements says. You may also find that your antivirus software or some system tools on your computer are unresponsive or don’t work properly. Watch out for these 20 tricks hackers use to scam you.

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Websites suddenly stop responding

“I’m not talking about one or two websites but multiple ones that aren’t related,” Trave Harmon, Triton Computer Corporation says. And if your co-workers or other people on your same network aren’t having any problems accessing these same sites, that’s even more of a red flag.

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You get a warning

“If an anti-virus warning pops up, don’t ignore it,” says Adam Dean, security specialist at GreyCastle Security. And don’t presume it has removed the virus, either. “If you see a malware detection by anti-virus software, assume it’s letting you know you have an issue, not that it has deleted the virus,” he says.

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You ignore updates

“Regularly updating your devices and its software helps ensure they are armed with critical patches that protect against bugs or flaws in their operating systems that cybercriminals can leverage,” says Gary Davis, chief consumer security evangelist at McAfee. “Though it’s tempting to skip out on these updates or put it off for a few days or even a few weeks, taking a few minutes to download them means you aren’t recklessly leaving your devices open for hackers.” You’ll also want to know the phone call scams that you should avoid, too.

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Prevention is the best defense

The best way to avoid infection is to have a solid, reputable antivirus/antimalware program installed in your computer, says Troy Wilkinson, CEO of Axiom Cyber Solutions. Fortunately, even advanced antivirus/antimalware solutions are not expensive. “These cost just a couple of dollars a month, so there really is no valid reason not to use one. But if you get infected, spyware can run hidden in the background, silently collecting your information and could cost you hundreds or thousands in the long run.” Don’t miss the 26 secrets an identity thief doesn’t want you to know.

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What else to do about it

“Malicious software removal, including spyware, is part science and part art; it’s always tedious and never reliable,” says Greg Scott, cybersecurity expert and author. One popular fix is to run a Windows System Restore to revert your system back to a date just prior to when you started noticing the virus symptoms. “Unfortunately, some sophisticated spyware also corrupts the restore points, so this is not a universal fix,” Scott says.
Another popular fix is downloading, installing, and running a second antivirus package, like Malwarebytes, which is free to download and offers a manual scan. “Unfortunately, since the system is already compromised, it may not be possible to download and install yet another software package. And if this is a new spyware attack, antivirus solutions may not find it because its signature is unknown,” Scott explains. “Instead, it’s often more effective to make backup copies of all documents, scan those to make sure they’re clean, then wipe and rebuild the problem system.” Don’t miss these 10 ways to protect yourself online so you don’t fall victim to a scam.