Remove browser hijacks
Lost control of your web browser? Pop-up windows plaguing your desktop? Discover how to take the fight to the browser hijacker
There are many ways in which your PC can be infected or hijacked – we covered a number of these in last issue’s main feature. Rather than go over relatively new ground, we’re focusing on a specific form of hijack: that of your web browser.
Most web browser hijacks are more annoying than devastating, but they are still a pain to undo. Typically, a hijack occurs when your browser’s home page, default search engine or browser error page are changed. But more worrying symptoms can include pop-up windows, unwanted bookmarks directing to dodgy websites, toolbars and add-ons that won’t go away and a general slowdown of your web browser, never mind your computer.
Behind the scenes, browser hijacks can be part of a wider malware infection that is geared towards stealing personal data or damaging parts of the Registry.
Most good anti-malware software should have tools for dealing with browser hijacks among other general infections. If your anti-malware tool hasn’t been crippled, update it and perform a full scan to see what it finds. Making sure any web browsers you have open are closed, let it deal with any infections, reboot and then run another scan before reopening your browser. If you’re lucky, the infection will be gone, but it’s possible that certain elements will remain – you may need to try changing your home page and default search tool back yourself, while clearing out your bookmarks.
You should also check your browser’s add-ons – you can do this within the browser itself (type ‘about:addons’ in Firefox’s Address Bar for example). Remove any add-ons you don’t recognise, then reboot your browser and check they don’t come back.
Other hijackers may be linked to software installed on your PC. Most hijacks originate from Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUPs), which are often installed alongside other apps. During their installation you’ll have seen an invitation to change your home page, install extra programs and so on. Sometimes they’re easy to skip, but some installers make it difficult to know what settings to choose. However, removing these can often be achieved simply by heading into the Apps section under Settings (Windows 10) or the Programs and Features Control Panel (Windows 7 and 8.1). Locate the offending item and remove it.
Third-party anti-malware tools have a patchy reputation when it comes to detecting and removing browser hijackers along with the PUPs that carry them. Regardless of which security tool you currently have installed, download and install the free version of Malwarebytes Anti-Malware (www. malwarebytes.com). This can be installed alongside existing security tools – perform a scan and it’ll detect and remove a wider range of threats than other tools. Reboot and scan again to verify the threat has been neutralised.
If you want to go even deeper, then run a scan using the free and portable AdwCleaner tool, which is also available from Malwarebytes (www.malwarebytes.com/adwcleaner/). This targets a wide range of web browser-related threats, including adware and hijackers. If damage has already been done either to your Internet connection or to Windows itself – for example, you’re blocked from accessing the Registry, or certain folders are now claiming you don’t have permission to access them – then use Windows Repair Tool (www.tweaking.com) and NetAdapter Repair All In One (https://sourceforge.net/projects/netadapter/) to unpick the changes.
Block browser hijackers
Once the source of the infection has been dealt with, you will need to take steps to prevent it from happening again, or at least minimise the risk. The ‘Tighten your PC’s security’ box below reveals the additional steps you should take to add further layers of protection to your computer. It also goes without saying you should beef up your web browser’s security – most threats originate through your web browser these days, so what can you do to help lock things down? We’d recommend moving away from Internet Explorer if you’re still using that – Opera, Firefox, Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge are all more secure alternatives.
Finally, look to modify your own behaviour. Install programs carefully, checking to avoid installing anything other than what you expect. Stay away from dodgy websites, such as those offering ‘free’ downloads of copyrighted material. And adopt a position of extreme cynicism when confronted by pops-up or emails claiming you need to click a link or open an attachment immediately – the more urgent the claim, the less likely it is to be true.
“Third-party anti-malware tools have a patchy reputation when it comes to removing browser hijackers”
If a third-party program attempts to install an add-on in Firefox, the browser will now alert you to the fact.
Tighten your web browser’s default security and privacy settings.