Fictitious search results screen with popup warning.

We’ve all done it. On our personal laptops, people tend to use a free version of the most popular antivirus software they know. Maybe it’s free McAfee, maybe it’s the free version of Avast. While reputable tools actually provide the free services that they promise, that’s not all they do. Free versions also advertise for themselves and others. Every time you restart your computer, you’ll get an offer for a premium download or a warning that your computer has a large number of problems which can only be solved by upgrading.

These programs might also come with a program of free programs that clog up your hard drive and replace your default settings. They even tend to include spyware. Sometimes it’s the seemingly benevolent (if annoying) spyware that monitors for problems and the ideal moment to pepper you with ads. Other times the spyware is robust and can track all of your information with a keylogger. The free program you wanted was just a cover for malware.

When this happens on your personal computers, it’s dangerous but containable. Your network has a limited reach and you can protect your own identity with close scrutiny and immediate efforts.

But when people start downloading free programs on their business computers, that can spell trouble. Malicious actors know that people aren’t going to be downloaded another layer of virus protection on their work devices. Instead, people are more likely to download a Skype-like instant messenger for personal calls or a tool to get around the network’s block on Netflix. Malware creators can target your coworkers just like your marketing department zeroes in on target markets. They know which downloads are the most attractive, and they can monitor the average user behavior to find the software offers that generate the most downloads.

This threat is different from malware, phishing schemes, or fake offers. In those instances, office employers are more likely to call IT when something goes wrong. Malware built into fake JavaScript update demands or mirrored sites but not be immediately noticed, but they won’t be hidden. Free software offers, on the other hand, are generally against company policy. So people will ignore the first signs of problems out of self-interest.

How can you solve the adware problem?

Adware, just like any other malware, taps into human behavior. While you might be tempted to put policies or firewalls in place that entirely block .exe files, it won’t work. A blockade is only a temporary barrier for people who decide they want a program on their work computer. Here’s what you can do instead:

Explain the dangers of adware.

Advertising is annoying, but that’s the end of it for most people. They don’t know about all of the other threats and data liabilities packed into adware. So your company needs to make it a priority to let them know. Education doesn’t solve everything, but it solves a lot.

Have a more liberal computer usage policy.

People don’t like stifling restrictions. Even if the computers are for business-use only, people want a bit of flexibility. So try to make room in corporate compliance and the budget for reasonable requests. If your company also has a BYOD or bring your own device, policy, then you have to widen that door even more. If you know your company’s employees are going to be on social media, on game sites, or streaming videos, make sure they at least do it safely.

But there’s no replacement for solid security. Find a managed IT service provider who can monitor Internet activity and even comb through downloads to look for malware. Go to IT Networks Australia Pty Ltd to see how a third-party service can protect your company without weakening data protections.

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