What is a keylogger? How to detect, remove and further avoid it

Last updated by   Nwachukwu Glory
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What is a keylogger? How to detect, remove and further avoid it

Internet usage has significantly increased in the last decade, which has exposed users to a wide range of malicious applications on the internet. You can never tell who has deployed a keylogger software on your PC to monitor your every move.

There have been a lot of private photo leaks lately. Hacking and other types of infiltration have significantly skyrocketed, too. One of the most effective ways hackers gain access to users’ devices and infiltrate them is through a keylogger virus. These malicious applications can run on your system for many years without getting detected.

So what is Keylogger? Keyloggers are forms of spyware applications that are very difficult to detect. They are lightweight and take note of every key you type on your PC or mobile device, and relay it back to the hacker’s server.

A man called Joe Lopez filed a suit against Bank of America far back in 2005. The reason was that a hacker infiltrated the bank database and made away with a sum of $90,000. An investigation showed that the hacker transferred the money to another account in Latvia. How did such a tragic incident happen?

Joe Lopez PC was a victim of a malicious application named Backdoor Coreflood. This application was a keylogger application and took a record of every keystroke Joe Lopez made. The criminal got access to everything he typed on his PC and used it to steal money from his account.

That incident occurred in 2005, 15 years ago.

So imagine how much more sophisticated malicious programs might have become since then. Mr. Lopez lost the lawsuit because the court determined that he did not take adequate precautions to secure his system against malicious keylogger programs.

That judgment clears one crucial thing; if you do not take the needed precautions, even the court won’t help. And to take adequate precautions against a nasty threat like a keylogger, you first need to understand what it is and how it works thoroughly.

What is a keylogger, and how does it work?

Keylogger comes from the family of the Trojan virus tree. A Trojan would use a typical mask like a useful application but carries out its malicious activities after download. Keylogger is the term used to describe any program that records the keystroke of a device. It carries out its operation by secretly monitoring and storing the keystrokes of a user.

However, there are also keylogging devices which are different from keylogging software. That brings us to the question is keylogger a virus?

Not every keylogger is malicious or a virus, and in some cases, legitimate programs can carry out keylogging functions. For example, applications that use “Hotkeys” or those that help a user to toggle between different keyboard layouts may not be malicious.

Some organizations also install keylogging software on employee systems to track their activities during working hours. If this is a knownpolicy of an organization, then it is justified and legitimate. Parental control functions may also keylog the devices of their wards.

But, there are so many keylogging applications that are viruses. Cybercriminals use a keylogger for espionage and unjustified monitoring. Thus, no matter the reason for deploying keyloggers, you should know that it can facilitate malicious and criminal intent.

How keylogger works

Once installed on a device, they start running immediately after the target user boots his system. And they keep running until you shut down your PC. A keylogger can target your activities on specific applications/websites, while some target every keystroke you make irrespective of what you do.

Most of the modern keyloggers are lightweight hence they don’t slow down the device of a target. That makes it hard for users to suspect anything wrong and take an action. Also, keyloggers are hidden in your device operating system, which means you cannot usually find them in your list of installed programs.

Sometimes they can embed themselves in hidden browser extensions. Some criminals would poison their website and infects any device that visits the sites. Keyloggers help malicious actors steal not only your personal details but also the credit card information alongside other secret data.

A keylogging software usually stores your keystrokes on a cloud server or in a small file, which then either gets emailed to the person monitoring your moves automatically or accessed by him via an online dashboard.

Today, not only software-based keyloggers exist, but also many hardware keylogging devices are available in the market. 

Hardware keylogger

Some keyloggers are embedded in hardware, and you may never suspect them. Any mobile manufacturing firm can spy on your cellphone by embedding a keylogger in jacks. The same applies to computers and laptops.

Hardware keyloggers can be embedded in mouse, joystick, and could also serve as a keyboard overlay. Did you know that each key’s sound can help hackers determine the keys which a user types through an acoustic keylogger? The keyboard overlay records every sound of your keystrokes and associates it with specific keys.

But most cybercriminals and international spying bodies use software keylogger instead of the hardware or acoustic keylogger.

How does a keylogger get on your PC?

How does a Keylogger get on your PC
(Unsplash)

Keyloggers have become complicated and advanced in recent times. Typically, they can get into your system when you visit poisoned websites.

That gets done by exploiting a vulnerability in your browser where hackers install keyloggers trough webpage script. And then, when you visit a malicious website, a keylogger gets launched.

Another way a keylogger gets into your PC or other device is when someone else deliberately installs it on your machine after gaining physical or virtual access to it.

A keylogger is secretly embedded in your Operating System and can perform all its tasks without getting noticed. Keyloggers keep on advancing. They can exploit an infected machine and are sometimes capable of downloading and installing other malware onto the infected system.

You should install a reputable anti-malware application and regularly update the database to stay free from keylogging. Also, it would help if you exercise caution while downloading files on the internet. Visit only reputable sites because many websites on the internet are potential carriers of keylogging software.

Did you know that despite the wide usage of keyloggers by cybercriminals, most antivirus programs overlook it? Therefore, it is essential to opt for a reputable antivirus program with a broad definition of keyloggers in its database. (More on how to protect against keyloggers a little later in this article.)

Do mobile devices get keyloggers?

Yes, mobile devices are prone to keylogging software, too. But currently, no known hardware keylogger for smartphones exists. However, every mobile device, including iPhones and Androids, is vulnerable to software-based keylogging.

There are hundreds of smartphone keyloggers on the internet. A mobile keylogger can capture whatever a user types on the screen irrespective of his device type. It captures even virtual inputs on the screen and tracks all your activities. 

You should know that mobile keylogging software would typically record more than your keyboard entries. It takes account of your emails, screenshots, images, text, log in details, and so much more. These malicious programs even connect to your phone’s microphone to record your calls, connect to your camera, network traffic, mobile printers, etc. All automatically once they get installed on a mobile.

But the most dangerous part of smartphone keylogging software is its restriction algorithm. A keylogger can restrict you from accessing some websites such as security sites and antivirus application download portals. They are designed to do it for some obvious reasons. You get it, right?

Keylogger construction

Keylogger Construction
(Unsplash)

The primary idea behind keylogging applications is to get in-between a chain of events such as when a key is pressed and when it appears on the screen. There are several ways to achieve this, but the typical form is through a software and hardware bug.

Other methods include secret video surveillance through hardware such as network devices, mouse, joysticks, etc. Keylogging software would typically intercept DDL functions in the user mode and request information from the user’s keyboard through the SDM (Standard Documented Method).

As noted earlier in this article, keyloggers have two primary types being keylogging software and keylogging devices.

Keylogging devices are typically small and can be attached to the keyboard or other peripheral devices. The keylogging software is a program that tracks users’ keystrokes and relays them back to the developers through the internet.

How keyloggers spread

Keyloggers are malicious applications, so they spread the same way as other malicious applications spread on your computer. A typical keylogger spreads on the computer in the following ways:

  • Keylogging software can get installed on the PC when a user opens an attachment from an email or other sources.
  • P2P networks can also infect your system with keyloggers, especially when you launch a file from an open-access directory.
  • Hackers can install keyloggers on your device though a web page script. The script automatically runs on your system when you visit a malicious URL.
  • A keylogger can be installed via other malicious applications through downloads and installs.
  • Someone else can install it on your system when you leave it without security.

How to detect and remove a keylogger

Detecting a keylogger is the first step to ensuring your privacy. The most effective and easiest way to determine a keylogger’s presence is to scan through the running processes of your system’s Task Manager.

However, a keylogger would usually name its process to an unrelated name, which would make it difficult for you to identify them. Therefore, you should check the names of any new process on the internet. You may be fortunate enough to get valuable information about them.

Go ahead and stop the processes if you discover any to be associated with a keylogger. Below we go with detailed steps to do so:

  • Access your Windows Task Manager. (You can do that by either simultaneously pressing Ctrl, Alt, and Delete keys and then clicking on Task Manager. Or, -right-click on your taskbar and click on Task Manager from the menu yo see.
  • Once you have it open, click on the processes tab to view all running processes on your PC.
Access Task Manager
  • Check for the names of unusual processes and stop any which is associated with a keylogger.

You should also click on the Startup Tab because it displays a list of applications and processes that get launched when your system starts. This would enable you to determine if a keylogger is running on your system or not. Most of the keyloggers are programmed to run immediately a user boots his device, so checking your Startup programs is worth it.

Move to Startup
  • Right-click on the name of any program that is associated with a keylogger and disable it.

Checking for Keylogger through internet usage

Checking your internet usage report also is an effective way of confirming a keylogger’s presence on your system. Follow the steps below

  • Press the Window button on your keyboard and “I” simultaneously, which would open up the Windows setting’s tab.
Control Panel
  • Click on the Network and Internet option.
  • Click on data usage.
Data Usage
  • Click on view usage details option.
App View

The View usage per app tab would give you a list of all applications using your internet resources. Search for any unknown program on the internet to determine if it is associated with a keylogger.

Looking out for keyloggers in browser extensions

You should also search your browser plug-ins and extensions to determine if any of them is associated with a keylogger. To do that, you need to get to your browser’s extension list.

Here is how to get extensions list on major browsers:

  • Firefox: Open your Firefox web browser and type about:add-ons in the address bar.
  • Google Chrome: Open your Chrome and type chrome://extensions into the address bar.
  • Safari: Go to the safari menu option and select preferences, then select manage extensions.
  • Opera: Locate the menu tab and select Extensions. Then click on Manage Extensions option there.
  • Microsoft Edge: Go to the browser menu and click on extensions.
  • IE (Internet Explorer): Go to the tools menu and click on manage add-ons.

Keylogger needs internet access to relay back your keystrokes to the criminal’s server. Make a search on the internet for extensions with an unusual name. Disable any that is associated with a keylogger.

Detecting and removing keylogger through full system malware scan

A full malware scan would enable you to detect the presence of a keylogger on your system. You should carry out a full malware scan or schedule automatic scans. This is an effective way of eliminating keylogger from your system. A quality anti-malware application would check for malicious files on your system and eliminate them.

But, make sure you go only with a top-notch anti-malware software equipped to sniff out any keylogger. A reputable anti-malware uses signature recognition and heuristics to recognize a keylogger. Such programs also boast identification capability of typical keylogger behavior connected to screenshot capturing and keystrokes first to find keyloggers or any other malware type and then remove them.

Fortunately, you do not need to spend a fortune to get your hands on such programs. There are many free malware and spyware removal tools available that can get the job done for you.

9 ways to keep yourself protected from keyloggers

Is It Still Safe To Use TrueCrypt
(Unsplash)

A keylogger is a significant threat to your personal information, and it exposes your emails, passwords, user names, and other sensitive information. That can lead to identity theft, unauthorized transactions, knowledge theft, and so on. Make it a top priority to stay free of keyloggers.

Keyloggers mask their identity, and they are usually trick to detect. Therefore you must endeavor to put measures in place to avoid them. And, more importantly, if you can prevent them at first place, then there is no need to take chances. Use the following methods to prevent keylogging on your PC:

1. Use 2-step verification

Hackers would use your user name and password stolen through keylogging to log into your accounts and carry out malicious activities. But it would be best if you endeavored to secure your online accounts with two-step security verification, known as multi-factor authentification. With two-step verification, a pin would be sent to your mobile device for authentication before you could access the account.

A two-step authentication would prevent hackers from gaining access to your accounts even if they succeed in stealing your log-in details either through data leaks online or keylogging. It would also enable you to know via a notification that someone is trying to access your account. We recommend you to set up two-step verification for your email, bank log-in, your social media accounts, and pretty much every account online.

2. System and application updates

System updates are necessary because the keylogging applications mask behind your system operating system. System updates eliminate all the third-party applications from an Operating System automatically. Software updates would also eliminate foreign applications including keyloggers.

Furthermore, a software update looks for vulnerabilities on your PC and would automatically patch them most of the times. A software update would address all the existing issues on your system, which would block every loophole hackers can use to gain access.

Please note some system updates do not update your web browser. Therefore you should always update your browser, too. Like OS, outdated browser add-ons and plug-in can lead to vulnerabilities.

3. Use encryption software

An encryption application can enable you to mask your keystroke, which would send the wrong key logs to the hacker. Encryption would help you mask all your inputs, so the keylogger would not understand the exact keys you typed. This is an added security layer you can apply on your PC for enhanced security.

Axcrypt.net is one encryption software that we can recommend. Its free plan would be enough for you to start with as it covers Mac and PC.

4. Avoid downloading cracked programs

People often look for cheap software alternatives on the internet. Hackers would often insert malicious codes within cracked software to infect your system with keylogging application.

Though crack software looks free but ultimately it is not, and tend to be very explorative. It is always better to purchase or download your applications from reputable sites because most of the free and cracked software come with hidden keylogging functionality.

5. Install an anti-malware program

All the quality anti-malware applications have a protective mechanism against keylogging applications. They protect your PC against malicious programs such as Trojan, rootkit, keylogger, and other spyware applications. The anti-malware program should be among the first set of programs you may install after buying and setting up a new PC.

Also, ensure that the anti-malware program virus database definition is updated regularly. An out of date anti-malware system may not be able to protect your PC against newer virus definitions. Furthermore, the anti-malware application would periodically scan your PC and fix hardware problems, software issues, and also optimize your system.

Many quality anti-malware exist in the market today, but if we would have to recommend one, it would be Malwarebytes Anti-Malware. It is among the most effective free malware removal tools, which runs deep scans alongside daily updates.

6. Start using a VPN

A Virtual Private Network provides an integrated protection mechanism against spyware, viruses, Trojans, rootkits, and so much more. It also provides an encryption mechanism for your PC, which would prevent hackers from accessing your keystrokes.

The encryption connection provided by a VPN would prevent unauthorized people from accessing your PC traffic. VPN technology can be used in the corporate environment as well because organizations are the primary target of cybercriminals.

Lastly, always opt for the best VPN only because most VPN services on the internet lack credibility. Some do not live up to their promise. Unfortunately, some would fetch your information from the servers and use them for malicious purposes. 

7. Exercise caution when opening an attachment

People often go online to download free files and attachments. However, most of the attachments and files you download on the internet already have malicious applications. Especially those you download through shared networks and drives.

Therefore, you should exercise caution when downloading files on the internet. Ensure you visit only reputable sites to download genuine applications. Furthermore, you should be skeptical about attachments sent to you by friends and colleagues. Some of them might be poisoned, and they can install a keylogger on your system.

8. Be watchful for your passwords 

You should periodically change your passwords and aim to use strong passwords only. Do not use the same passwords and usernames for all your accounts. It is that simple.

Hackers would usually trail you for sometime before carrying out malicious activities so, a frequent change of password would definitely get them confused. To make your own job easier and keep your passwords secure, it would be best if you always used the best password manager that offers password encryption.

9. Use of an alternate and virtual keyboard

Endeavor to use a virtual keyboard when logging in to your online accounts. The keylogger would not detect virtual keyboards, and it is handy in protecting your privacy. Not only a virtual keyboard like DVORAK will help protect your key logs’ privacy, but it will also prove beneficial in other ways.

Periodically changing your keyboard layout will prevent acoustic keyloggers from determining the characters through your keypress’s sound. Acoustic keylogger uses each key’s tone to define your input and changing your keyboard layout assigns different tones to your keys.

Bonus tip

Finally, you can also use a comprehensive security solution. Protect all your digital devices – smartphones, tablets, PCs, Macs, and any other device used to access the internet. A solution like McAfee can give you all-round system protection such as firewall protection, antivirus system, data protection, and identity manager.

Increased use of keylogger by cybercriminals

Increased use of keylogger by cybercriminals
(Unsplash)

Keylogging software has been in existence for a long time. Over the last couple of years, there has been increased use of keylogging software by criminals. Below we go with a list of some of the most significant keylogging attacks:

  1. In August 2006, there was a theft of over $1 million from Scandinavian Bank (Nordea) clients. Imposters sent fake automated emails to bank clients asking them to install an anti-spam application, which they attached with an email.

    However, the application had a lethal Trojan known as Haxdoor, and it infected the users’ systems once they click to download. It was keylogging software that recorded every input once users tried to access Nordea’s online service. That helped cybercriminals access the users’ information and transfer vast sums of money from various accounts.
  2. In 2004, the most significant cyber epidemic occurred when MyDoom got unleashed to carry out a DoS attack on www.sco.com. The attack caused the website to be unstable or unreachable for several months. The worm also attacked anyone that visited www.sco.com and used its keylogging functions to carry out a massive harvest of users’ credit card numbers and log-in details. The cybercriminals used the stolen information to transfer huge funds from users’ accounts.
  3. In the first quarters of 2005, the UK police prevented cybercriminals from stealing banking data. Hackers attacked the bank with keylogging applications. They planned to steal a whopping $423 Million from the bank. The keylogging Trojan they used in the attack was created by then 32-year old Yeron Bolondi. His application allowed cybercriminals to track keystrokes entered by the users once they began their banking session.
  4. In May 2005, the London police arrested an Israeli couple and charged them for developing malicious keylogging applications. The programs were used by individuals and organizations to carry out massive espionage, and the scale of the spying was shocking. Cellcom, Pelephone, and YES were some of the companies involved in the cybercrime.
  5. During the first quarter of 2006, Brazilian Police carried out a raid and arrested 55 people for spreading malicious keylogging applications. They used keylogging software to steal passwords, user names, banking details, and other sensitive information. The keylogging application was embedded in users’ browsers and activated once they open a bank’s URL. It tracked all their inputs and secretly sent back the collected data to cybercriminals. These miscreants used the data to steal $4.7 million from 200 clients.
  6. In 2004, a group of young Russians and Ukrainians between 20 and 30 carried out a massive keylogging attack. The group began sending emails to bank clients in France and other parts of the world with an embedded malicious keylogger application.

    They harvested a vast amount of log-in details and used that for money transfers. The application spied on the user’s keyboard inputs, and the program could get activated once the user entered their banking URL. The keylogger harvested log-in details and sent back to the cybercriminals. They succeeded in stealing as much as $1 million in the space of twelve months.

There are hundreds of keylogging attacks not mentioned above, but the fact is, such incidents keep happening both on a small and large scale worldwide. It all backs the claim that the use of keylogging software has immensely skyrocketed lately.

A research carried out by Verisign suggests that the company has seen a tremendous rise in the use of malicious programs with advanced keylogging functionalities. Another study carried out by Symantec indicates that almost 50% of the world’s malicious programs are targeted at harvesting internet users’ personal user data.

Also, a study conducted by Bambenek suggests that more than 10 million systems in the USA alone are infected by keylogging application. The possible annual losses stand at an estimated $24.3 million each year.

Did you know that the Kaspersky antivirus database currently has definitions of more than 300 types of keylogger? These numbers do not include keyloggers embedded with other forms of malicious applications such as spyware. That is the clossal extent of keylogging software, and users must take the necessary steps to protect their privacy.

Final notes

This article has explained what a keylogger is all about, the dangers it poses, how to prevent it, and so much more. Given that you are ready to take proper cautions and needed actions, you now will be be able to keep keyloggers at bay for good.

Keylogging developers usually mask their applications behind other legitimate apps, and it infects your system after you download/install on your device. They can use it to steal sensitive information from you for hacking, identity theft, and so much more. Sometimes it is also used for industrial and political espionage.

Lately, keylogging has become one of the most commonly used tools in cyber fraud worldwide and is very difficult to detect. They mask behind your operating system and your web browser to carry out information harvesting. A keylogger can easily evade manual detection.

Therefore, you should use a quality antivirus application, VPN (read about the pros and cons of VPNs if you are still wondering whether you may or may not use such a tool), as well as a reputable malware application. Remember, gaining maximum security in this digital age is more like completing a puzzle with different pieces. And the recommended tools are pieces you need to stay protected at the maximum-possible level.

Aside from using technological tools to keep keylogger away from your system, you should also ensure the following:

  • Use a strong password.
  • Regularly change your password.
  • Be careful about the websites you visit and the files you download
  • Always lock your devices with passcodes.
  • Use alternate keyboards and virtual keyboards whenever you want to log into your banking applications and emails.
  • Always update your system and applications.

Stay aware, stay safe!

About the author

Nwachukwu Glory
Nwachukwu Glory

Glory is a researcher and writer driven by the desire to help people. After working for seven years, she decided to leave the corporate world to pursue her passion for research and writing. For the past five years now, Glory has been a freelance writer and loves every minute of it. As an author, Glory aims at providing information, motivation, and inspiration through her work. She takes pride in discovering and sharing actionable solutions that can simplify the challenges of everyday living. Glory is currently residing in Port Harcourt. When she is not writing, you can find her singing, reading, and managing her businesses.

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