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When you run across a pop-up on your favorite website, it's admittedly annoying. Still, you can easily click that little X in the corner within seconds, and go about your browsing. But when pop-ups randomly show up on your computer and you're not surfing the web, it's understandable that you'd be alarmed. What's going on here? And what, exactly does this mean for the health of your computer? Computer security experts break it down.
What is a pop-up, again?
Sure, odds are high you've at least seen a pop-up before, but you might be a little fuzzy on what they actually are. At a basic level, pop-ups are online ads that show up when you visit a website.
"A pop-up is a graphic display, typically a small window, that appears unexpectedly on your computer," Mikko Laaksonen, chief executive officer of Responsible Cyber, tells Yahoo Life. "The pop-up in itself is not malicious, but is an ad." Plenty of websites use pop-ups to try to sell you on something or offer you a promo code before you leave, and that's pretty harmless.
But sometimes pop-ups can be a sign that something is off with your computer. "Browser pop-ups may also indicate the presence of unwanted code running on your device," Joseph Steinberg, cybersecurity and emerging technologies advisor, tells Yahoo Life. "Likewise, pop-ups appearing on your computer outside the constraints of a web browser are often the result of a malware infection." (Malware, in case you're not familiar with the term, is software that's created to damage your computer or network.) A program like Malwarebytes Premium could help protect you.
Even if the pop-ups don't seem to be doing anything to harm your computer, Steinberg points out that "unwanted adware is malware." Basically, if pop-ups are showing up on your computer, it's annoying at best and malicious at worst. Either way, you don't want to write it off.
How to stop pop-ups solution #1: Get anti-malware software
Laaksonen says that anti-malware software is a "must." Steinberg agrees, saying, "If you are already running security software, run a complete system scan for malware." And if you're not currently using security software on your computer, Steinberg recommends you get it ASAP.
One option: Malwarebytes Premium. This software helps protect you from malware attacks, as well as online scams and phishing schemes designed to steal your sensitive information, including login information and credit card numbers. Malwarebytes Premium can also warn you if you’re visiting a suspicious site. In addition, Malwarebytes Premium helps block sophisticated cyberthreats that other programs can miss, providing an effective way to help secure your devices and data.
How to stop pop-ups solution #2: Check your web browser
Steinberg recommends checking your browser (i.e. Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer) to make sure it doesn't have any proxies configured to intercept and relay web traffic or any unwanted plugins.
"If that advice sounds like techno-jargon to you, consider uninstalling and reinstalling your web browser," Steinberg suggests. Basically, you may need to get rid of your current browser and install it again to fully get rid of the issue.
How to stop pop-ups solution #3: Don't click on pop-ups
Clicking on the pop-up can make the problem even worse. "Do not purchase anything offered to you in a popup via the pop-up. Do not engage with the popup," Steinberg says.
Laaksonen says that's especially true if the pop-up is promising you something, such as money or a random prize. "It would help if you do not click on unknown links, and if you do not open attachments that claim a prize or anything that you were not expecting," he says.
How to stop pop-ups in the future
To stop pop-ups down the road, Steinberg recommends practicing good cyber hygiene — that is, making smart decisions online and using software to keep your computer free from malware. A few ways to do that, per Steinberg:
Back up your computer and do it often. That way, if something goes wrong, you won't panic about lost data.
Encrypt sensitive data. Encryption is built into many versions of software packages, or you can use a free encryption tool.
Use anti-virus, anti-malware software. You don't need to spend a ton on it, but you want a package that is anti-virus, anti-spam, and anti-malware. Once you have it, run a scan often.