What Is a Browser Hijacker?
A browser hijacker is a type of unwanted software or browser extension that enters target computers and modifies default browser settings. These programs balance on the borderline between legitimate and malicious software. There are quite a few programs that are known to hijack browser settings even if they are supposed to be legal or associated with legitimate applications. Unless users remove browser hijackers from their systems, eventually, these programs can expose them to unwanted content or behavior. It is sometimes hard to pinpoint what exactly a browser hijacker is because some of its functions and distribution methods may overlap with other unwanted applications. Here we try to provide the most common examples of browser hijackers and how these programs work.
Why Are Browser Hijackers There?
Sometimes browser hijackers are considered to be part of adware because they enter target computers to inject your browser with commercial advertisements. By forcing you to open a particular affiliated website, a browser hijacker increases its traffic at the same time adding up to its advertising revenue.
Therefore, the reason browser hijackers are rampant these days is money. They are sometimes created to push unsuspecting users into opening unfamiliar websites or clicking customized commercial advertisements. It is mostly done so because browser hijacker hanker for the clicks, but the problem is that it may lead to severe computer security issues or questionable actions.
Where Do Browser Hijackers Come From?
Browser hijackers have evolved from aggressive forms of advertising. They could be downloaded from official vendor’s websites, third-party file-sharing pages, or come bundled with freeware applications via drive-by downloads.
In some cases, browser hijackers may have spyware qualities. It is not unheard of for a browser hijacker to have a software-type keylogger that can gather banking information such as logins and passwords. What’s more, some hijackers are known to make permanent changes to the Windows registry, which negatively affects the system and its performance. Thus, it is obvious why users should be concerned about their system security, and removing a browser hijacker should be at the top of their agenda.
Why Do Users Install Browser Hijackers?
No user would want their browser settings changed without their permission. However, the problem with browser hijackers is that they employ a particular modus operandi that basically tricks the user into installing them.
Some browser hijackers do not display any kind of notification about the oncoming installation. Also, they usually do not have any uninstall option, and they certainly will not offer opt-out instructions that would allow the user to avoid the payload.
On the other hand, there may also be some browser hijackers that include the opt-out option, and users can choose NOT to install them, but there is a tendency to go through the installation process automatically, and that is how most of the browser hijackers manage to settle down in our computers. Sheer negligence is often to blame in this situation.
How Does a Browser Hijacker Affect My Computer?
As mentioned, a browser hijacker modifies your browser settings. This modification occurs without your permission. Different types of hijackers may affect your browser and your system in various ways. Nevertheless, the most common hijacker infection symptoms usually include:
- Bookmark list modification
- Default search engine modification
- Denied access to specific pages
- Forceful redirection
- Homepage modification
- Slow web browser
- Third-party ads
- Third-party toolbars
Aside from the visible signs of infection mentioned above, there are also other aspects common to many browser hijackers. We must mention that such programs often employ tracking cookies (check out our entry on Tracking Cookie here) to monitor user’s web browsing habits.
Likewise, a browser hijacker may also do that, but there is a catch to it. A browser hijacker will collect information on your web browsing habits to provide you with tailored commercial content. The content will appear either in modified search result links or through third-party ads. It cannot make users click the promoted links and ads, but since the commercial content is related to the recently used search keywords, there is a good chance that the user would click those links willingly.
Why Are Third-Party Links Dangerous?
Computer security experts recommend against clicking the third-party links provided by browser hijackers. It is already in the name: since those are third-party links, browser hijackers do not review them, and almost anyone could make use of the program to promote their content. This opens opportunities for advertisers or even cybercriminals to promote and distribute their content. Due to such lax security, browser hijackers should not be tolerated. Rather than being extreme security threats themselves, these programs are more of freeware distribution vehicles that could be exploited by cybercriminals without any second thought.
Browser Hijacker Examples
To illustrate what programs from this category can do, we will describe several typical browser hijackers. Please take note that quite often, the categories assigned to these programs may vary according to the security researcher. As mentioned, there are a lot of blurred lines between specific programs when they have features common to several categories.
Also, the way browser hijackers operate and spread around has changed over time. The first two browser hijackers that we use are classic examples of the genre. The main aspect of a browser hijacker infection campaign is that tons of hijackers tend to come from the same source, and that is how they are grouped in different “families.” Some browser hijacker families are more prominent, and others fade into obscurity rather soon.
The most recent trends in browser hijacking focus on swift browser settings modifications that lead to redirections to seemingly random commercial websites. These pages tend to have a short lifespan because they get taken down almost immediately. Nevertheless, browser hijackers still manage to annoy users around the globe every single day.
Ask Search is a good example of how a legitimate search engine can become part of a browser hijacking campaign. This search engine is known to have been employed by Mindspark toolbars. Mindspark toolbars is a huge PUP family that was prominent in 2015, and there are still apps from this group popping up every now and then to this day.
The criticism of this program arises from the fact that users have to deselect the toolbar and search engine installation themselves. In other words, going through standard installation without any customization modifies the default browser settings. Subsequently, users may encounter unwanted third-party content via the Ask Search engine, especially if the engine is misused by malevolent third parties.
The classification of Conduit Search heavily depends on a researcher. In some cases, this program may be categorized as a potentially unwanted program, too. In the past, it may have also had Browser Helper Object’s features, especially if it needed to affect the Internet Explorer settings.
The problem is that upon the installation of any Conduit application, the additional program called “Search Protect by conduit” denies access to modify browser settings via the settings page. What’s more, after removal, Conduit Search leaves leftover files in the start-up registry, which should not happen with a reliable application.
To boot it all, people who have allowed installation of Conduit Search components have reported phishing attacks, onslaughts of spam email messages, and telemarketing flood. This just proves that browser hijackers could be highly intrusive, especially if users engage with them up to a particular level.
Search Dimension is a newer group of browser hijackers. It has been around since 2017, but it still manages to affect target systems. This browser hijacker mostly targets Chrome browser users, and up until recently, it was also possible to find the Search Dimension app in the Chrome Web Store. In fact, it is quite common for browser hijackers to have an entry on the official browser app store. The entry eventually gets removed, of course, but while it is there, it gives the impression that the said app is reliable.
Thus, Search Dimension and other similar threats trick users into thinking that they are useful apps that provide users with the necessary tools and functions. Consequently, they may collect information about user’s browsing history and promote potentially harmful third-party content. The point is that if a program resists removal and if you do not remember having installed the program, you most probably have a threat on your system.
How to Avoid Browser Hijackers?
Keeping in mind their distribution methods, it would be wise to stay away from third-party file-sharing websites to avoid being affected by a browser hijacker. Also, reading the steps on your installation wizard should also help you prevent undesirable intruders from entering your PC. Refrain from clicking on new tabs and pop-up windows that you encounter when you browse an ad-heavy website. Don’t forget that surfing a page that offers “free” content could also be risky as such pages are bound to be associated with PUPs, adware, browser hijackers, and other potential security threats.
What’s more, please consider disabling particular add-ons you have on your browser. Quite a few browser hijackers come from the add-on software, including browser extensions, browser helper objects, and toolbars. Albeit these items can customize and improve your web browsing experience, they may also be exploited by cybercriminals for their financial gains. In other words, take a moment to think it over before you install a new “must-have” application.
Finally, investing in a legitimate anti-malware tool may also help you in this case. As mentioned, browser hijackers often come with unwanted and potentially dangerous software, and it might be too much of a task for you to deal with it entirely on your own. Allow an automated anti-malware tool to solve this for you.
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