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What are Keyloggers and How Can You Protect Yourself from Them? Summary

Keyloggers are malicious software programs that can hide undetected on your device. Most commonly, they’re designed to capture your keystrokes before sending them to a hacker who can compromise your online accounts.

Thankfully, you can protect yourself with a combination of cybersecurity software and knowhow:

  • Guard your network with a firewall.
  • Install a password manager to keep your passwords secure.
  • Use a trusted antivirus, such as Norton 360.
  • Install the latest updates on your devices to ensure it’s safe against emerging threats.
  • Regularly change your passwords, and use your password manager’s suggestions for the strongest password security.
  • Avoid clicking links or downloading attachments within emails unless you’re sure they’re safe.
  • Employ anti-keylogger software to encrypt your inputs and prevent keyloggers from capturing your keystrokes.

While a VPN won’t stop keyloggers, it can lessen the odds of you having data stolen by other means, so it’s a valuable tool in your cybersecurity defense. NordVPN is currently the best VPN you can get for online protection.

There’s a lot to know about keyloggers, including the different types you might encounter, how they can get onto your devices, and how to avoid becoming a victim. Check out our full guide on keyloggers below!

Keyloggers record your keystrokes, capturing sensitive credentials and other data, then handing it to cybercriminals. Malware comes in all shapes and sizes, but keyloggers are some of the most nefarious and difficult-to-detect malware programs around.

Icon showing hands on keyboard, while eye spying on them

The best way to protect yourself from keyloggers is to be prepared. That means employing the best cybersecurity tools that’ll stop malware from infecting your device. It also means following our advice on safer browsing, which we’ve detailed below. We’ll also explain how to remove a keylogger.

What Are Keyloggers?

You might already understand malware, but what about keyloggers?

A keylogger, or keystroke logger, is a program that hides on your computer and records every keystroke you make. While there are legitimate keyloggers for monitoring child or employee activity, cybercriminals primarily use this software to steal people’s data.

As the keylogger tracks your keystrokes, the information is sent to a hacker’s database or transmitted to them directly. Hackers then analyze the data and can work out exactly what you’ve been typing.

What data can keyloggers access?

Infographic showing what data Keyloggers can access and collect

The kinds of data that a keylogger can access include:

  • Usernames, passwords, and credit card numbers
  • Private messages sent through online messaging apps
  • Browser and search histories
  • Emails

These malicious programs can also be designed to activate or capture a screenshot when you type a specific word. Since they hide in the background, you can easily become a victim without even realizing it.

What are the types of keyloggers?

Software and hardware keyloggers both exist, but the software kind is more common. Both of these types of keyloggers can pose a threat to your personal data security, with consequences including identity theft and financial loss.

Icon representing hardware keylogger in form of the USB drive

A hardware keylogger is a physical device that connects to your computer, just like a USB stick. Though they sound like they’d be easy to spot, criminals often hide them among the cables and other devices plugged into or around your computer.

Since getting access to a device isn’t easy in most cases, software keyloggers are more common. Here are the most common types of software keyloggers you might encounter:

Infographic showing software keyloggers
  • Form keyloggers: These programs are designed to look for information entered into a web form. These are usually found on malicious websites. If you’re directed to a malicious website by a phishing scam, form keyloggers will commonly be used to steal the information you enter. As soon as you submit the form, the keylogger captures everything you’ve entered.
  • Javascript keyloggers: These are small pieces of computer code that can be “injected” into a website. When visitors use the website, these keyloggers can capture everything the victim types.
  • API keyloggers: An API is an interface that lets two computer programs talk to each other, usually to transmit data. API keyloggers can intercept the keystrokes sent from your keyboard to your computer. These are stored and later transmitted to a hacker.

We can also distinguish between “user-mode” and “kernel-based” software keyloggers. Most keyloggers tend to be of the user-mode variety, which intercepts an API like the ones we’ve outlined above. Put simply, they’re easier to code and create.

Kernel-based keyloggers embed themselves deep in your computer’s operating system software. This makes them very hard to detect and uninstall, but they’re also rarer as a result of their complexity.

How does keylogging work?

Infographic showing how Keylogging works

We’ve already explained how your device might be infected with keylogger malware from different sources. Here’s a look at how the attack might unfold:

  1. You accidentally download malware from a phishing email or malicious website.
  2. The malware contained a keylogger, which installs itself, hidden, on your device.
  3. The keylogger begins to capture your keystrokes, saving them in a small file.
  4. These files are periodically emailed to a hacker.

Alternatively, the files gathered by a keylogger might be uploaded to a website or remotely sent to a hacker’s database.

How common are keyloggers?

Illustration showing bunch of malware icons and eye spying icons

Malicious keyloggers like Zeus Trojan are becoming much more common. In 2019, the Global Threat Intelligence Report designated keylogging malware as one of the highest threats to cybersecurity.

Exact statistics are hard to come by, but SANS Institute researcher John Bambenek estimates that around 10 million computers in the United States are infected with keylogging malware. Kaspersky Labs, meanwhile, has identified over 300 types of keyloggers.

According to more recent data from Statista, keyloggers are still posing a significant threat. And all of these sources suggest to us that keyloggers are an increasingly common threat to security.

What Are the Risks of Keyloggers?

Infographic showing most common risks associated with Keyloggers

The risks of keylogging software take many forms. Here are the most common risks associated with keyloggers, in no particular order of severity.

1. Account takeover

Keyloggers can capture everything you type, which means that they can capture all of your passwords. It’s bad enough if a hacker breaks into one of your accounts, but all of your accounts could be compromised in this way.

A full account takeover can be devastating. The hacker could pose as you on social media, scam your friends and family, sabotage your work, order high-price items from your shopping accounts — the list is endless.

2. Financial loss

With your financial credentials stolen through keystroke logging, a hacker could empty your bank account in minutes. Since keyloggers are hard to detect, this could all happen very quickly without your knowledge. By the time you realize what’s happened, your money could’ve been siphoned through multiple accounts, making it impossible for your bank to reverse the transfer.

3. Commercial reputation damage and regulator fines

Personal accounts aren’t the only ones at risk. If a keylogger infiltrates company hardware, the effects can be far more damaging. With access to company accounts, hackers routinely cause the kind of large-scale data breaches that you read about in the news. Such breaches attract regulatory attention and lead to significant fines stretching into millions of dollars. There’s also the risk of loss of brand reputation.

4. Cyberstalking and voyeurism

Keystroke logging can provide cybercriminals with a way to stalk specific individuals with targeted attacks. Cyberstalking is fast becoming a serious problem as technology advances and increases cyberstalkers’ arsenal of malicious tools.

By logging your keystrokes, somebody could determine where you’ll be at a specific time. Some keyloggers even support webcam hijacking, which could see a stalker remotely monitoring your cameras without your knowledge.

5. Long-lasting damage and disruption

Finally, as a general risk that goes hand-in-hand with all of the above, you face the risk of serious disruption to your life. Recently, someone on our team spoke out about the impact identity theft had on her life. She was dealing with the fallout for months, and that was the result of a single attack on her privacy.

If a keylogger results in widespread unauthorized access to your accounts, the results could be devastating and time-consuming. Cleaning your device, getting your access back, closing down fraudulent accounts — all of these actions and more could cost you significant time and energy.

How Do Keyloggers Infect Your Computer?

Infographic showing how do Keyloggers infect your computer

Keyloggers have a number of ways of infecting your computer. Most causes of a keylogger infection are the result of human error. Here’s a list of some of the most common points of entry:

  • Keyloggers can infect your computer via a Trojan virus. Much like the Roman tale, a Trojan virus disguises itself inside a seemingly legitimate piece of software. When you download the software — which may or may not work — the software installs a keylogger.
  • Another point of entry is via phishing attacks. If you download an attached malicious file or visit a malicious link with an unprotected browser, you can accidentally infect your device with malware.
  • Installing malware-infected games on your computer may also serve as an entry point for keyloggers. A 2021 investigation discovered that gaming-related malware has afflicted hundreds of thousands of gamers.

You’re probably wondering how you can protect yourself from keyloggers. Fortunately, we can give you some tips that will immediately bolster your protection.

What Are the Signs of a Keylogger?

One of the worst effects of keyloggers, besides identity theft, is that they’re often untraceable. Some keylogging software can evade antivirus programs, and in most cases, they won’t impact your system’s performance. So, what are the signs of a keylogger that you should look out for?

Infographic showing possible signs of a Keylogger on your device
  1. With older devices, your device’s performance could still, in fact, be impacted. A slow web browser could indicate a keylogger.
  2. Your mouse pointer stutters or your typing appears slowed onscreen.
  3. You see errors when trying to load graphics on websites, or entire web pages.

Of course, another clear sign of a keylogger or malware infection in general is becoming a victim of cybercrime. If your bank account has been compromised or your passwords have been changed on other websites, a keylogger is one of the potential causes.

How Can You Protect Yourself From Keyloggers?

Your best defense against keyloggers is preventing them from getting onto your computer. Here are some of the most important steps you can take to protect yourself from keyloggers:

Infographic showing how can you protect yourself from Keyloggers

1. Use a firewall

Computer firewalls can help stop keyloggers in their tracks. A firewall is responsible for monitoring your network for any suspicious activity. So, even if your device is infected, the software could prevent the logged data from being shared with a hacker.

How to enable Windows Firewall

Here’s how you can turn on the firewall for Windows devices:

  1. Open “Control Panel” from your Start menu.
  2. Select “System and Security.”

    Screenshot of Windows, System and Security
  3. Select “Windows Defender Firewall.”
  4. Turn on Windows Firewall for greater protection.
  5. That’s it!

    Screenshot of Windows Defender Firewall

How to enable firewall on Mac

For Mac computers, the process is slightly different. Here’s a step-by-step guide for macOS Catalina 10.15.7:

  1. Click on the Apple menu and then “System Preferences.”
  2. Click “Security & Privacy” in the main menu.

    Screenshot of Mac, Preferences menu
  3. Click “Firewall” in the tabs along the top of the next menu.
  4. Click on the padlock to make changes and input your password.

    Screenshot of Mac Firewall settings
  5. Enable the Firewall” feature.
  6. And you’re done!

2. Use a password manager

Password managers can autofill your password for you whenever you visit a website or app. Your passwords are all stored securely within your password manager account. You then only need to unlock that account — preferably protected by two-factor authentication — to access your passwords or save new ones.

Because you’re not typing your passwords out every time you log into an account, there’s less risk of having them captured by a keylogger. The software should also help you to get into the habit of creating more secure passwords, as it can recommend new, secure passwords for you.

The best password managers aren’t overly expensive. NordPass, for example, our pick of the best password managers, is just $1.99 per month with a 30-day money-back guarantee. We gave it top marks across the board in our NordPass review.

3. Use antivirus software

Antivirus software is essential for protecting your computer against different kinds of malware. While most antivirus companies can identify keyloggers, some only tend to categorize keyloggers as “potentially malicious.” This means some programs won’t automatically block them. This is often the case with some free antivirus programs, as they may have less-developed malware databases. However, free antivirus programs are better than not using one at all.

You should check to see whether your chosen antivirus’ default settings will detect keyloggers. If not, see whether you can configure the software to detect and block common keylogging software.

We recommend using Norton 360 as it uses machine learning and AI algorithms to detect keyloggers and other malware threats. With several decades of history behind it, Norton is our top pick for an antivirus right now.

4. Regularly update your computer

It’s essential to keep your computer and software up-to-date. Malware is constantly evolving, and installing the latest vulnerability patches provides protection against the latest threats.

Keyloggers and other kinds of malware often detect and exploit vulnerabilities in your system to infect your computer. While software manufacturers don’t always have a day-one patch available, they’re usually quick to patch critical software flaws. So, update your computer regularly to ensure you’re getting the latest security software updates.

How to enable automatic updates on Windows

If you’re on Windows, enabling automatic updates is simple:

  1. Click on the Windows button.
  2. Click on the “Settings” cog.
  3. Next, locate and click on the “Updates & Security” options.
  4. Now, click on “Check for Updates” if your software suggests that you’re not running the latest software.

    Screenshot of Windows, Check for Updates
  5. Otherwise, click on “Advanced Options” to check that you’ve got automatic updates enabled.

How to enable automatic app updates on Windows

You should also keep all your Windows apps up to date. Here’s how you can make sure you don’t miss any app updates on Windows:

  1. Go to your Start menu and search for “Microsoft Store.”
  2. Click on “Microsoft Store” to be redirected.
  3. In the upper-right corner of your screen, click on your “Account” symbol.

    Screenshot of Windows Microsoft Store
  4. Open “App Settings.”
  5. Enable “App updates – Update apps automatically.”

How to enable automatic updates on Mac

If you’re a Mac user, follow the steps below instead:

  1. Click on the Apple menu.
  2. Select “System Preferences.”
  3. Click “Software Update” in the main menu.
  4. Click “Software Update.”

    Screenshot of Mac, updating software
  5. Next, to tailor future updates, click the “Info” button under “Automatic updates.”

Mac breaks down the process into several permissions. In the final step, you can have your Mac:

  • Download updates without asking
  • Install macOS updates automatically once they’ve been downloaded
  • Install app updates from the App Store to keep your apps up to date
  • Install Security Responses and System files to get the latest security vulnerability patches
Screenshot of Mac, Update specifics

Check the relevant permissions to enable them. We recommend enabling them all for the best protection against malware and keyloggers.

5. Change your passwords regularly

It’s good practice to update your passwords regularly, even as frequently as every few weeks. If, say, your password is stolen or part of a large-scale data breach, a hacker will often not use it immediately. If you change it soon enough, you could avoid being compromised. In short, changing your password frequently can help to protect your accounts from keyloggers.

MacOS devices natively provide password management, as do most web browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. But with the advance of phishing scams, keyloggers, and other threats, these built-in features may not be enough.

Screenshot of Mac, Password Assistant

We’ve already discussed the benefits of using one of the best password managers like NordPass or Keeper. Even if you’d prefer not to subscribe to a service, you should at least try the best free password managers available.

Phishing scams are some of the most common causes of malware, including keyloggers. These scams rely on carefully crafted emails, messenger app notifications, or SMS messages that encourage you to click on a link.

Screenshot of an example message of Phishing scam

That link will usually take you to a malicious website that’s using a form-grabbing keylogger. Common phishing scams impersonate Amazon, courier websites, or banking websites, among others. The form will steal your account information.

If there’s no phishing link, there might instead be an email attachment. Downloading this attachment will often install a keylogger onto your machine instead.

Even if there’s no keylogger embedded in an email, there could be other malicious software, such as remote access tools that let a hacker control your machine. We advise you to never open suspicious emails. You should also steer clear of downloading files from an email or message. If in doubt, simply delete the message.

7. Use anti-keylogger tools

Anti-keylogger software is another line of defense against credential theft. These programs hunt down and destroy keyloggers that might’ve already infected your device. They’re specially designed to work by detecting keyloggers’ digital signatures or specific behaviors.

Why would you use an anti-keylogger software in addition to your regular antivirus? Check out some of the main benefits of these tools:

  • Antivirus software don’t classify keyloggers as potentially malicious. This means they won’t differentiate between malicious software and legitimate software, such as a keylogger used for remote employee monitoring.
  • Anti-keylogger tools will immediately block keyloggers upon detection from performing actions or transmitting data.
  • The software will notify you when a keylogger has been found on your device. From here, you can remove it from your device.

In short, these tools can offer an additional safeguard on top of your existing antivirus protection. Here’s a quick rundown of the best anti-keylogger tools available right now:

  1. Ghostpress
  2. McAfee Rootkit Remover
  3. SpyShelter
  4. Zemana AntiLogger Free
  5. Kaspersky Security Scan

For more information on each of these tools, check out the next section on how to remove keyloggers.

How Do You Remove Keyloggers?

Icon showing malware inside the cog and a wrench

While anti-malware or anti-spyware software can help detect and remove keyloggers, your best option is to use anti-keylogger software. This type of software checks all of the processes that are running on your computer, such as:

  • Operating system software and processes
  • Other routine background services and apps
  • The BIOS (your Windows device’s startup processes, among others)
  • Network settings
  • Browsers

In addition to using anti-keylogging software, you can open your Task Manager and check what programs are running. If you see unfamiliar programs, perform a quick Google search to see if there are any keyloggers with those names.

How to Open Task Manager:

On Windows, simply press “Ctrl” + “Alt” + “Del” at the same time, then choose “Task Manager.” On a Mac, go into your “Applications” folder within the Finder app, then look for “Activity Monitor.”

Screenshot of Mac Activity Monitor

Best anti-keylogger tools

Of course, sometimes, it’s best to leave it to tried-and-tested professional software. Here are four of the best anti-keylogger tools:

1. Ghostpress

Supported DevicesWindows
PurposeScans for and removes keyloggers
Paid Upgrade?$6.00 per year
Ghostpress logo small

Ghostpress is a free anti-keylogger software that you can get for Windows machines. It’s a simple program with limited configurations, but this makes for a sleek user experience. Protection can be toggled on and off through the interface, and you can scan for and remove keyloggers.

While configurations are limited, you can still customize the tool. This includes choosing from multiple languages, enabling automatic security updates, and designating the software to start at boot-up. While running, GhostPress will encrypt your keystrokes into an unreadable format.

2. Malwarebytes Anti-Rootkit

Supported DevicesWindows
PurposeTargets malware responsible for keyloggers
Paid Upgrade?N/A
Malwarebytes logo small

If anti-keylogging programs can’t remove the keyloggers, try an anti-rootkit program. These programs target the viruses that are usually responsible for installing keyloggers.

Malwarebytes Anti-Rootkit is an excellent free program that scans your entire operating system for keyloggers and the rootkit viruses used to install them. You need to command the program to perform these scans — they’re not scheduled. If you execute a full scan, the program will perform a system reboot, too.

At the time of writing, we can only find Malwarebytes Anti-Rootkit for Windows. However, Malwarebytes offers a comprehensive antivirus package for Windows, macOS, Chrome OS, Android, and iOS.

3. SpyShelter

Supported DevicesWindows
PurposeScans for and removes keyloggers, including commercial threats
Paid Upgrade?€29 one-off license fee
SpyShelter logo small

SpyShelter is designed to stop custom-made, malicious keyloggers. It’s also able to stop commercial keyloggers. When you install the program, you’ll also benefit from protection against webcam hijacking, screen capture malware, clipboard hijacking malware, and other keyloggers.

Much like a VPN encrypts your data, SpyShelter also encrypts your keystrokes. However, unlike a VPN, this encryption happens at a deep system level. Even if your information is stolen by an active keylogger, it’ll be unreadable. At the time of writing, we couldn’t find a Mac version of SpyShelter.

4. Zemana

Supported DevicesWindows
PurposeScans for and removes keyloggers
Paid Upgrade?$29.95 per year
Zemana logo small

In addition to anti-malware programs, Zemana has an anti-keylogger feature. Keylogger protection works in the same way as SpyShelter, encrypting your keystrokes so that they can’t be read by a hacker.

What’s more, Zemana AntiLogger Free doesn’t just rely on a database to identify malware, meaning it’ll offer up-to-date protection without requiring constant updates. It also has ransomware protection. However, in our opinion, it’s less adept at stopping keyloggers than SpyScanner, and it’s currently only available to Windows users.

Final Thoughts: Exercise Caution to Avoid Keyloggers

Keyloggers are a type of malware that can steal your personal data while going largely unnoticed. This makes them a significant threat to personal online security. In the time it takes to notice that something’s wrong, you can easily give hackers access to every online account you own, and the consequences could last for months or years.

To protect yourself and your accounts against keyloggers, a multi-faceted approach is best. Your aim is to build up multiple layers of security that make malware penetration almost impossible. Here’s how:

  1. Use a firewall.
  2. Use a password manager.
  3. Install a powerful antivirus like Norton 360, our best antivirus of the moment.
  4. Regularly update your computer to guard against the latest threats.
  5. Get into the habit of regularly changing your passwords.
  6. Never click suspicious links or download email attachments unless you’re absolutely sure they’re legitimate.
  7. Turn to anti-keylogger tools for deep-level encryption that hides your keystrokes.

If you’ve been stung by keyloggers before or you’re simply looking to beef up your online security, check out some of our other useful resources:

Keyloggers: Frequently Asked Questions

Got questions about keyloggers and how to remove them? Check whether we’ve covered your question in our FAQ! Otherwise, please drop us a comment so that we can get you an answer.

What are keyloggers?

Keyloggers are a type of malware. They’ll hide in your system and capturing your keystrokes. This data is then sent to hackers via various means, allowing these cybercriminals to steal your personal data. Some companies and parents use keyloggers to track employees or track children’s online activity, but most keyloggers are used for illegal online activity.

Can a keylogger be detected?

Yes, keyloggers can be detected and removed. Unfortunately, one of the most powerful tools in a keylogger’s arsenal is its ability to hide in your system without causing any noticeable symptoms. That’s why you need to use an anti-keylogger tool to detect and remove this malware at its source.

What is a keylogger used for?

Keyloggers are primarily used to steal account credentials, allowing hackers to infiltrate your financial or online shopping accounts or steal your identity. However, they can also be used in a legitimate context.

Some companies track their remote employees using keyloggers, which tell employers how productive they’re being. Some parents also use keyloggers to see what their children do online. The best anti-keylogger tools can beat both malicious and legitimate keyloggers.

What are the signs of a keylogger?

While keyloggers are hard to trace, they can show signs such as slowing down your computer. This is more common if you’re running an older machine. They may also cause your mouse pointer or text input to move more slowly, and you might see errors when websites attempt to load graphics.

If you spot these problems, try one of our anti-keylogger software recommendations or download one of the best antivirus programs, like Norton 360.

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