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Keyloggers Explained: How They Work and How to Protect Yourself

keyloggers

Besides employing social engineering tactics and setting up phishing websites, hackers and cybercriminals make use of keyloggers to steal passwords and confidential information. Here’s how you can defend yourself.

What is a Keylogger?

A keylogger is a software that records keystrokes or keys that you press on a keyboard. Passwords, credit card numbers, confidential messages and other information are at risk of being recorded and retrieved by a cybercriminal when you type them on a keyboard of a compromised computer. A keylogger basically position itself between the keyboard (or input device) and the computer’s operating system in order to capture information. It’s typically designed to operate in a covert manner to avoid detection.

Keylogging software sounds scary and unethical from a privacy perspective, but it is not inherently bad. It has its fair share of legitimate uses. For instance, concerned parents can make of use of surveillance software that includes a keylogger to monitor their children’s activity on the computer. Similarly, large corporations and businesses employ keyloggers to watch out for employees with unprofessional behavior.

On the other side of the spectrum, keyloggers can be used by hackers for all kinds of nefarious purposes. By stealing your password, hackers can access your banking and email accounts and lock you out. They can use your information to steal your money and blackmail you. They can deceive your friends, colleagues at work and family members as part of identity theft schemes.

What Are Some Examples or Types of Keyloggers?

Some of the free keyloggers include KidLogger, Revealer Keylogger and Spyrix Keylogger. These applications have various features, such as taking the occasional screenshots, recording audio output, sending the recorded keystrokes to a specified email address, and monitoring other active apps and visited websites. Many software keyloggers run stealthily, never showing up in the Task Manager as running applications.

Although many keyloggers exist as software programs, hardware keyloggers are also available. They more or less have the same capabilities as their software counterparts, but they require physical access to the computer to capture and record keystrokes. Every hardware-based keylogger has a microcontroller that’s dedicated for capturing and interpreting signals that transmit from the keyboard to the computer. It then converts the captured information into human-readable data and stores them in a nonvolatile memory. Hardware keyloggers are easy to obtain; some are even available on Amazon for as low as $54.

The aforementioned keyloggers are commercial examples. You can buy and use them without repercussions for as long as your intent and purpose is legal and moral. Then again, some people don’t bother with what’s right, choosing to commit crime instead out of selfish interests. In 2006, for example, 55 people in Brazil were arrested for distributing keyloggers in multiple computers and stealing $4.7 million in the process. In 2011, keylogging hardware were found attached to keyboards of public library computers in Manchester, England. A similar incident happened in Concordia University in March 2016.

How Does a Keylogger Gain Access to What You Type?

For the legitimate purposes, parents and IT admins obviously need to install the keylogging software before they can monitor the activities being done on a computer. Hackers and cyber criminals, on other hand, must employ illegal methods to force keyloggers into computers.

For instance, hackers can distribute a keylogger on peer-to-peer networks or include one as a file attachment to a phishing email. Anyone foolish enough to open the file becomes victimized. Hackers can exploit browser and operating system vulnerabilities to infect outdated systems. Basically, methods that hackers use to spread other malicious programs can also be used to spread keyloggers.

A hardware keylogger is typically a USB device with two connectors. One of the connectors must be plugged to the keyboard, while the other must be plugged into the computer. In other words, the hardware keylogger sits between the keyboard and computer to intercept keyboard data being sent to the computer.

How Do You Know if a Keylogger Is Installed in a Computer?

It’s okay to feel a bit paranoid, because it’s entirely possible that someone is monitoring your keystrokes. Sadly, there’s no reliable way to confirm your suspicion. It’s in the nature of a keylogger to remain undetected while it records your text input. However, a computer with a keylogger installed may show symptoms as if it were infected by malware. These symptoms include websites loading at a slower rate than usual, your mouse and keyboard behaving abnormally, and error messages appearing frequently. Note that these symptoms tend to manifest long after a keylogger has infected the computer and sent valuable information to hackers and unauthorized users. The wise thing to do when it comes to a keylogger is know how to prevent it from entering your computer (as discussed further below).

Hardware keyloggers are nearly impossible to detect by software inspection. If you check the Device Manager in Windows, for instance, a connected keylogging hardware is most likely listed as only a generic device with no indication of its function or purpose. You must physically examine the computer for any questionable peripherals and external devices.

How Do You Remove a Keylogger?

And so you’re pretty sure that a keylogger is residing in your computer, what then? Begin by performing a full system scan using your antivirus. Doing so catches popular variants of keylogging software. Make use of second-opinion malware scanners and anti-keylogger software, preferably after starting your computer in Safe Mode with Networking, to catch the more elusive variants.

Keylogging hardware are immune to software removal solutions. You must physically inspect your computer for any unwanted devices. Look out for fake connectors attached to the keyboard and remove them.

How Do You Prevent a Keylogger Attack and Protect Yourself?

Your basic protection against keyloggers comes from your antivirus. Ensure that it’s up to date and set to stop not just malicious software but also potentially unwanted programs. Another critical line of defense is the use of a firewall, which watches for suspicious inbound and outbound transmission of data. Remember, keylogging software must send its captured data to hackers online, but it can’t do so if a firewall is actively blocking the transmission.

Enable two-factor authentication for your online accounts, so other users can’t log in to your accounts even if they’ve obtained your passwords through keyloggers. Do not visit disreputable websites and open unknown files that are potentially embedded with malware. Do not access your online accounts on a public computer.

Use a password manager that generates and remembers login credentials and other confidential information for you. A password manager can auto-fill credentials in form fields, which means you don’t have to type passwords yourself and expose them to keyloggers. Last but not least, change your passwords regularly for all your important accounts.

Basically, if you exercise proper computing practices and use extreme caution when going online, you’re safe not only from keyloggers but also from other types of malware.

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