What is Adware? How to Remove Adware From Your Device

Laptop on a table with Alert icon on the screen and bunch of ads around
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How to Remove Adware From Your Device: A Short Summary

Adware is a common form of malware that generally shows intrusive advertisement pop-ups. Although some forms are more of a nuisance than an actual danger, malicious adware can affect your system negatively. It might decrease your system’s performance, spy on your online activity, or enable the installation of other (worse) malware.

If you suspect your PC might be infected with adware, there are different steps you can take:

Additionally, you can manually uninstall apps you suspect might be infected. On Android this is done as follows:

  1. Go to “Settings.”
  2. Go to “Apps.”
  3. Tap on “Manage apps.”
  4. Tap on the app you wish to delete.
  5. Click on “Uninstall.”

On iPhone, you can follow these steps:

  1. Find the right app on your home screen.
  2. Tap the app and hold.
  3. Tap “Remove App.”
  4. Select “Delete App .”

Do you want to learn more about adware and how to remove it? Check out the complete article below.

You’re probably already familiar with adware, even if you don’t know it. What is adware, you might wonder? Adware is a type of malware that displays intrusive (pop-up) ads and changes browser settings without your permission.

In most cases, adware is more of an annoyance than a serious threat. However, in recent years there has been a rise in dangerous adware. These newer forms of adware can spy on users, track their activities, or even install other kinds of malware.

Here’s what you need to know about adware and how you can protect your devices from it. We’ll also discuss how to remove adware from your computer and smartphone.


What Is Adware?

What is Adware icon

The term adware is short for “advertising-supported software” and refers to unwanted software that often floods your device with pop-up ads. It’s sometimes categorized as a potentially unwanted program, or “PUP” for short. Adware can affect more than just your regular PC or mac. It’s also very prevalent on smartphones.

Adware might reveal itself in different ways. Most commonly, it consists of constant, random ads that interrupt your online experience. Often, your browser might also get redirected to specific websites without you asking for it. Finally, there’s adware that secretly tracks your online activities. These programs might record your IP addressbrowser information, or Google search queries.

Not all adware is (very) dangerous. One of the main issues of adware is that it’s just incredibly annoying. Getting bombarded with ads and pop-ups likely won’t make your day any better.

To make matters worse, it can be incredibly difficult to get rid of the ads that adware shows. Sometimes ads keep reappearing when you repeat a necessary action. You might, for instance, click on a video to pause or play it, only for an ad to show up every time you do this.

How does adware spread?

How do you get Adware iconThere are different ways in which adware might reach your computer or mobile device. Here are the most common ways in which it spreads:

  • Through willful downloading: You might have downloaded adware yourself, as part of a free program or app, for example.
  • Through malicious links or websites: In these cases, the adware installs itself automatically when you visit malicious websites or click an infected link, sometimes through phishing.

Different Types of Adware

There are many different kinds of adware, and some types are more malicious than others. The most important distinction to make is between adware that users have consented to, and adware that users have not consented to. There are different degrees to this.

Legitimate adware

Legitimate adware is adware that is installed with the user’s consent. This might seem illogical, given the undesirable nature of most adware. Nevertheless, it’s quite a common method of offering free software. This way, developers can (hopefully) offset the development costs of a piece of software or an app with advertisement revenue.

With legitimate adware, ads tend to be related to the software or app you installed.  You might see a pop-up for a paid version of your free product, for instance. For many, this is a more pleasant experience than being bombarded with completely random advertisements.

One example of legitimate adware can be found in many free antivirus trials. With that free software, you often consent to being shown ads for premium packages, knowing that watching those will allow you to continue using the program without having to pay for it.

Deceptive adware

Legal deceptive adware makes it difficult to opt out of harmless (third-party) adware. Creators might make it tedious and hard to get rid of this kind of adware once you’ve downloaded it. Legal deceptive adware also includes programs that are unclear about or do not mention the included adware at all.

This kind of adware is considered a PUA (potentially unwanted application) or PUP (potentially unwanted program), as it is installed without the awareness and consent of the user.

Abusive adware

Another kind of adware that could be considered PUA is abusive adware. This category is similar to legitimate and legal deceptive adware, only the number of ads is disproportionally high.

Abusive adware bombards users with tons of ads that often have nothing to do with the program they installed. Ads about pornography or (sexual) performance enhancement pills are common examples. This type of adware looks more like the “classic adware” people think about when hearing the term. It can be extremely annoying and hard to remove.

Malicious adware

While all types discussed so far are (usually) legal, adware can also be malicious in nature. This kind of adware harbors dangerous malware, either in the program itself or in the ads and pages that the adware shows.

Developers might use adware to disguise their own malware or malicious software by third parties that pay them. Malicious adware is considered illegal in many cases.

Browser hijackers

A specific kind of adware worth naming is the browser hijacker. This type of malware detects vulnerabilities in your browser and exploits them. As a result, your browser settings will be changed without your approval. An example of a surprisingly common browser hijacker is Search Encrypt.

Like regular adware, browser hijackers might be nothing more than annoying, showing you pop-up ads and interrupting your regular browsing experience. However, in some cases, browser hijackers contain malicious adware, as well.

Have a look at our article “What Is a Browser Hijacker?” for more information about browser hijackers and how to remove them.


Why Do People Spread Adware?

What harm does Adware cause iconLike with most other types of malware, the aim of adware tends to be financial gain. Adware displays intrusive ads, which are usually provided by companies that pay the developer to show their product. In some cases, the developer might show ads for their own products, hoping that people will buy them.

In short, adware generates revenue. There are three main ways in which adware developers and distributors make money through showing external ads:

  • Pay-per-click (PPC): Every time you click on an ad, the developer gets paid.
  • Pay-per-view (PPV): Whenever an ad is shown to you, the developer gets paid.
  • Pay-per-install (PPI): Every time someone installs the adware, the developer gets paid.

Some adware also tracks your online activity. This information can be used to show you more targeted advertisements. Alternatively, the developer or distributor can sell your data, like your location and browser history, to make even more money.


How Common Are Adware Attacks?

How frequently do adware attacks happen iconAdware is a very common form of malware that many people have come into contact with. Some internet users might even think that being plagued by ads is a normal occurrence — something that automatically comes with “being online.” Of course, this isn’t the case.

For Windows, adware takes up about 13% of all total malware detections, as measured by Malwarebytes in their 2022 Threat Review Report. Compared to the previous year, the amount of adware jumped by 200 percent in 2021, which Malwarebytes refers to as the “Covid bounce.” On Mac, the situation is even worse, with 99,6% (!) of detections consisting of adware and PUPs.

In the same year, adware was also prevalent on smartphones, with various kinds of adware taking up almost 40% of 2021 detections on Android. This makes it the most common type of mobile malware during that period.


Risks and Consequences of (Malicious) Adware

The biggest adware risks are the ones that come with illegal malicious adware, as that might download additional malware on your device. On top of that, adware in and of itself will have negative consequences for your computer, as well. We’ll be diving more into these risks and consequences below.

Spyware and keyloggers

Many malicious adware programs come coupled with installed spyware. Spyware will track your virtual behavior. In other words, nothing you do on your computer or smartphone can be considered private anymore. You are being spied on by the program’s distributor.

Keyloggers are similar to spyware, but go beyond mere spying: they register what you type. This way, cybercriminals could get a hold of your most sensitive data, such as the login information to your online banking portal. This allows hackers access to your online information and even steal your money. For more information, you can read our full keyloggers article.

Keyloggers and spyware can be a part of the same “malware package” that is installed on your device when the adware is downloaded. Alternatively, they might be installed after you click a dangerous link in an ad that the adware shows you.

Ransomware

Ransomware-on-the-Rise-IconMalicious adware might take you to a page that infects your device with ransomware. This can be done without your knowledge if the page executes a so-called drive-by download of the dangerous software.

In this case, your device or parts of it will become inaccessible. The distributors of the ransomware will likely ask you for money in return for “unlocking” your device or specific files. In short: your data is being taken hostage.

For more information on ransomware and what to do if you’re a target, read our full ransomware guide.

Backdoors for other malware and viruses

Some dangerous adware creates so-called “backdoors” in your system. These backdoors can be used by more serious malicious software to attack your system. With advanced antivirus evasion features, these new malware attacks might go unnoticed. The backdoor will allow them to sneak past your device’s defenses.

To give some examples, adware might be used as a gateway to distribute and mask computer viruses or Trojan horses. If this happens, pop-up ads will be the least of your worries.

Higher data usage

Aside from risks that involve other kinds of malware, adware itself can be incredibly inconvenient as well. It might result in higher data usage, for example. This mainly applies to mobile adware.

If you have a phone plan that includes mobile data, adware might cause an unpleasant surprise. After all, some adware, such as browser hijackers, directs you to certain websites without your permission and awareness. If this happens a lot, your data usage will go up, since you’re browsing more than you otherwise would. As a result, your bill might turn out a lot higher than what you’re used to.

Lower device performance

Another inconvenience of adware is that it might make your computer or smartphone slower. Especially abusive adware that bombards your system with advertisements can significantly slow down your device and negatively affect its performance. Moreover, adware can run in the background of your device and take up a lot of system resources.

Of course, the severity of this will depend on the specific kind of adware you’re dealing with. Any drop in performance can, however, affect loading times, making you wait longer for that YouTube video to start. It might even affect your gameplay if you’re into online gaming.


Do I Have Adware on My Device?

It can be quite easy to detect adware. Some adware warning signs include the following:

  • You get frequent pop-up advertisements.
  • Your internet browser homepage changes without your permission.
  • Your web browser slows mysteriously or crashes.
  • Website links frequently redirect you to other places.
  • You find new toolbars, extensions, or plugins in your browser that you didn’t install yourself.
  • Your device installs software without your permission.

Do multiple of these signs apply to your situation? Then it’s likely you’re dealing with adware. Scroll down to the guide for your operating system to learn how you can get rid of it.


How to Remove Adware From Your Computer (Windows and Mac)

Adware scan iconIt can be difficult to remove adware, since it might go undetected by antivirus programs. After all, some forms of adware are (part of) legitimate programs, so antivirus software might have difficulty determining whether the adware poses a threat or not.

If you suspect your Windows or mac computer is infected by adware, your best option is to use an adware removal tool. Here’s how you do that:

  1. Download and install a good free adware removal tool. A trustworthy option would be Malwarebytes’s free AdwCleaner. This is one of the most popular anti-malware tools in the world and is considered the best adware removal tool.
  2. Go to the AdwCleaner dashboard and click “Scan Now” to scan your device for adware. If you’re using a different program, a similar button or option should be available.
  3. Screenshot of Malwarebytes, Scan now
  4. Check the results of your scan and choose whether you want to quarantine and disable any programs that were found.
  5. Screenshot of Malwarebytes scan results
  6. Go to the “Quarantine” tab and delete the infected programs or preinstalled software. If the programs are necessary for your day-to-day use, you can also choose to restore them to their original state.
  7. Screenshot of Malwarebytes, Quarantine window

After you’ve deleted the adware, your system should function as normal again, and you should no longer be bothered by unnecessary ads and popups. If the problems endure, make sure to go over the result list of your scan again and delete any of the programs that show up completely.


How to Remove Android Adware

Removing mobile adware works a bit differently compared to PC-based adware. There are three main ways to deal with adware on your Android, depending on the severity of the issue. We’ll describe each of them below.

Option 1: Uninstall malicious apps

If you suspect the adware is hiding in a regular app on your Android phone, the best thing to do is to figure out which app contains the adware. Try to remember when the problems on your phone started and which apps you downloaded around that time. Do keep in mind that some adware won’t give you any issues for the first few days or even weeks of use.

To uninstall malicious apps, follow these steps:

  1. Go to your Android’s “Settings.”
  2. Either scroll down until you see “Apps,” or search for it in the settings menu.
  3. Screenshot of Android phone, apps settings
  4. Tap on “Manage apps.”
  5. Screenshot of Android phone, manage apps
  6. Scroll through the list of apps until you find the one you wish to delete. It can help to sort your apps according to used storage or date of installation. The former will help you track apps that have been demanding a lot of data, while the latter can help you find adware-infected apps if the adware problem only recently started to affect your device.
  7. Tap on the app you wish to uninstall.
  8. Screenshot of Android phone, app info
  9. Scroll down to where it says “Uninstall,” accompanied by a little trash can icon. Click on the icon and confirm.
  10. Repeat this with every app you wish to delete. We recommend uninstalling apps that you don’t recognize, don’t remember installing, or don’t use.

Now, you can use your phone as you regularly would to check if the issue has been resolved.

Option 2: Safe mode

Still being bombarded with ads? You might have to start your phone in safe mode and delete any infected default software. Here’s a guide on how to do that:

  1. Unlock your Android device and hold the power button on the side of your phone until the “power off” menu shows up.
  2. Press the “Power Off” option and hold it until a new screen pops up.
  3. Tap “OK” on the “Reboot to safe mode” screen.
  4. Fill in your SIM pin once the phone has rebooted.
  5. Screenshot of Android phone, Safe mode settings
  6. Go to “Settings.”
  7. Tap on “Security.” Depending on your version of Android, this option might have a slightly different name, such as “Security and privacy” or “Biometrics and security.” It might also be called “Privacy protection” if you have a Xiaomi device, such as the device we used for this article.
  8. Screenshot of Android phone, Privacy protection
  9. Go to “Device admin apps.” Some phones store this option under “Special permissions.”
  10. Screenshot of Android phone, Device admin apps
  11. Tap the blue slider or check mark next to any apps that should not have administrator rights to deactivate them.
  12. Follow the steps mentioned in the “Uninstall malicious apps” section above to delete malicious apps.
  13. Hold the power button on the side of your phone again and click “Restart” to exit safe mode.

Option 3: Antivirus program

Does the problem persist even after you’ve taken the above steps? Then you might need to get an antivirus app for Android that’s good at detecting adware. Bitdefender Security is an example of a great Android antivirus app that pays special attention to adware during its scans.

In general, antivirus software isn’t as good at removing adware as dedicated adware removal tools are. However, those removal tools tend not to be as readily available for mobile devices. An antivirus app for Android that specifically scans for adware, such as Bitdefender’s, is a great alternative.

On top of that, it’s always a good idea to install antivirus on your mobile devices as well as your desktop, so it can help keep you safe from all kinds of malware. Do you want more information about removing adware from your Android device? Check out our full Android malware removal guide.


How to Remove iPhone Adware

Getting a malware or adware infection on iPhone is a lot rarer than on Android. After all, non-jailbroken iPhones can only access apps from the App Store, which is checked and regulated by Apple. This means you’re a lot less likely to come into contact with (dangerous forms of) adware.

Moreover, iPhone apps do not interact with each other the way apps on Android phones do. This makes the spread of adware and other malware less likely. Nevertheless, you can choose to delete apps that you suspect are infected with adware:

  1. Locate the app on your home screen.
  2. Tap the app and hold.
  3. Select “Remove App.”
  4. Spotify app on iPhone with the "Remove App" option highlighted
  5. Tap “Delete App” to delete it from your iPhone.
  6. Message on iPhone asking to remove an app with the option "Delete App" highlighted

Just like with Android adware, it is possible to start your iPhone in safe mode, but only if you have a jailbroken iPhone. We don’t recommend jailbreaking your iPhone, since that will make it more vulnerable to adware and other kinds of malware. If you have a jailbroken iPhone and want to delete adware from it, hold down the power-off icon and select safe mode like you would on an Android phone.

We recommend getting a good antivirus solution for iOS to protect your device against (future) adware and other malware. One good option would be Bitdefender Mobile Security for iOS.


How to Block Adware Pop-Ups on Smartphone

It is also possible to block pop-ups caused by adware. Although pop-ups are only a symptom of adware, blocking them will save you a lot of annoyance. This can be a nice solution if you have to deal with legitimate adware as a necessary evil, for example because you want to use a free service that comes with lots of unwanted advertisements.

Moreover, by blocking pop-ups, you’ll make sure you can’t accidentally click on anything that might harm your device.

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to block pop-ups on the most popular mobile browsers for Android (Chrome) and iPhone (Safari).

Block pop-ups on Google Chrome (Android)

Do you use Google Chrome? Then you should follow the steps below to block pop-ups:

  1. Open Google Chrome.
  2. Tap on the three little dots in the top right corner.
  3. Chrome browser on Android with the Three dots symbolizing the menu highlighted
  4. Go to “Settings.
  5. Menu of the Chrome browser on Android with the option "Settings" highlighted
  6. Scroll down, and tap on “Site Settings.”
  7. Settings menu of the Chrome browser on Android with "Site settings" highlighted
  8.  Go to “Pop-ups and redirects.”
  9. Site Settings menu of the Chrome browser on Android with "Pop-ups and redirects" highlighted
  10.  Disable “Pop-ups and redirects.”
  11. The screen "Pop-ups and redirects" on iPhone with the slider highlighted

Block pop-ups on Safari (iPhone)

To block pop-ups on Safari, follow these steps:

  1. Go to “Settings” and tap on “Safari.”
  2. Screenshot of iPhone settings
  3. Scroll to “General” and switch on “Block Pop-ups” so the slider turns green.
  4. Screenshot of iPhone block pop-ups Safari

How to Prevent Adware Infections

Despite the prevalence of adware, there are steps you can take to keep it from infecting your devices. Here are some tips to protect your devices from adware.

5 tips to prevent your device from being infected by adware, with illustrations

1. Keep your software updated

One of the most important ways to defend yourself online is to keep your operating system and programs updated. Most operating systems and software have vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit. As software developers uncover these vulnerabilities, they release updates to fix them. This way, the “weak spots” in your software can no longer be used against you. The process of patching vulnerabilities and optimizing software is a constant one, so continuously updating your systems is a must.

In the case of adware, you’ll especially want to make sure to update your antivirus software. That way, the latest threats will be recognized by your virus scanner and dealt with accordingly.

Make sure you install updates from official sources only, so you don’t accidentally end up installing adware or other malware that’s hiding as a fake update for legitimate software.

2. Pay attention to what you’re installing

Whenever you’re about to download a program, stop for a moment and make sure you know exactly what you’re installing. This is especially important for freeware, which often contains (hidden) adware. If you aren’t sure what a program does, do some online research to find out more about it. If any program seems suspect, avoid it.

This goes for smartphone apps as well. Only install apps you find in the official Google Play Store or App Store. Apple and Google have security measures and protocols in place to keep their stores largely free of adware. Even there, however, you should be careful what you download. Make sure the app you’re about to install can be trusted, comes from a good source, and has good reviews.

3. Set up a firewall

A firewall is a program that prevents unauthorized networks from interacting with your network. If you install a suspicious program, the firewall will notify you and ask your permission to allow that program access to your device. A good firewall will recognize malicious ad software as well, even when it is installed by accident or without your consent.

These days, firewalls usually come as part of an antivirus package. This is especially true for firewalls used by consumers. A great option for an excellent antivirus program with a good firewall is Norton 360.

Check out Norton 360

4. Think before you click

Don’t click on pop-ups when they appear, as they might take you to a dangerous page or directly infect your system with malware. When you’re constantly bombarded with pop-ups, you might think that clicking the ad will get rid of it. The opposite is likely true, however, so don’t give in!

Adware might try to trick you, as well. Some pop-ups might show an “X” near the corner that looks a lot like the button that would normally close a window or program. Instead, however, this is an attempt to get you to click the ad, so malware can compromise your system. That’s why it’s best not to click on the pop-up at all and just close the full tab or window the pop-up appeared within.

Finally, never click links or download attachments in emails or messages unless you know exactly what they are, even if they are from someone you trust.

Apart from it generally being a bad idea to engage in illegal activities online, they also increase the likelihood of adware and other malware infections. After all, many platforms that distribute illegal software and applications are not nearly as well-regulated and safe as their legal alternatives.

To give an example: if you download video or photo editing software from Adobe, you’re a lot less likely to accidentally download adware or other malware than if you were to download this from a torrent site.

If you want to make sure adware doesn’t find its way onto your devices, it’s best not to engage in illegal torrenting and other questionable activities.


Final Thoughts: Stay Safe From Adware

There are many different kinds of adware, ranging from mildly annoying pop-up ads for relevant products to seriously damaging malware that has lasting negative effects. Although adware might be a necessary evil if you’d like to use free software, it’s best to be wary of these kinds of potentially unwanted programs.

If your device is infected with adware, you should be able to uninstall the malicious app or program by hand or with the help of an adware removal tool or antivirus solution. We’d personally recommend Bitdefender or Norton, which are both providers with excellent anti-adware tools.

Want to know more about other kinds of malware and how you can protect yourself against them? Here’s some further reading that might be of interest to you.

Adware: Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have a specific question about adware? Check our FAQ down below! If you can’t find your question, leave us a comment below and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Adware is a form of malware that characterizes itself by the intrusive pop-ups and advertisements it shows. Sometimes adware is only a (big) nuisance. However, some kinds of adware can be hazardous, because they might spy on you or even enable the installation of other types of malware.

Malicious malware can do serious damage to your system or network. It might:

  • Spy on your (online) activity.
  • Access your personal and sensitive data.
  • Negatively affect your computer’s performance.
  • Enable the installation of other, more dangerous, kinds of malware.
  • Disable your antivirus software to compromise your computer’s malware defenses.

Removing adware can be challenging, as most adware is intentionally hard to get rid of. That’s why we recommend using a dedicated adware removal tool. These programs are specialized in dealing with this type of malware. We also strongly suggest uninstalling apps that you no longer use to keep your device as clean as possible. This is very easy on both Android and iPhone.

Tech journalist
Nathan is an internationally trained journalist and has a special interest in the prevention of cybercrime, especially where vulnerable groups are concerned. For VPNoverview.com he conducts research in the field of cybersecurity, internet censorship, and online privacy. He also contributed to developing our rigorous VPN testing and reviewing procedures using evidence-based best practices.