Browser Hijacker

A Browser Hijacker is a type of malicious software that covertly modifies web browser settings without the user's consent. It typically alters the homepage, search engine, and new tab settings to redirect users to a specific website or display unwanted content. Browser hijackers often come bundled with free software or malicious downloads and can compromise user privacy and security by tracking online activities and injecting unwanted ads.

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Browser Hijackers in 2024: Understanding, Identification, Removal

What is a Browser Hijacker?

January 05, 2024

Think of a browser hijacker as the unruly party crasher of the internet world. It sneaks into your web browser uninvited and starts rearranging the furniture – changing your homepage, messing with your search engine settings, and leading you down sketchy online alleys. Just like an uninvited guest who overstays their welcome, a browser hijacker disrupts your online experience by bombarding you with unwanted ads, gathering your personal data, and turning your once-snappy browser into a sluggish, chaotic mess.

About Browser Hijackers

One of the most widespread and annoying types of unwanted software throughout the web is browser hijackers. They target web browsers – programs like Chrome, Safari, Edge, Firefox, or other software serving as gateways to the Internet and websites. A web browser is not just a frameless window but a complex program, giving a lot of room for a user or, in our case, an exogenous program to modify and alter it. Browser hijackers are sometimes called browser modifiers.

What do they do?

Browser hijackers pursue several possible goals. They spy on you, they throw ads at you, and they do both to make you a victim of targeted intrusive advertising. The term "spying" goes beyond just collecting data on your browsing history or search queries (Google does that, just like other search engines). In the case of browser hijackers, we're talking about tracking that goes up to key-logging, which is as dangerous as it can be since logins and passwords that you manually input in the sign-in dialog boxes become available for the crooks.

Browser after hijacker activity
Browser's main page after the hijacker activity

Because of those facts, browser hijackers usually work both ways: they flood the user with advertisements and simultaneously deliver all data they can collect to the data thieves. Hijackers also apply a pretty interesting way of advertising: they are not just showing you the banners but also changing your search query results to the advertising pages. Therefore, you will have no choice besides opening one of these sites.

How do browser hijackers make money?

The developers of malicious browser hijackers sell the accumulated data on black data markets, the places to which all beneficiaries of data-driven automated services pay visits to increase their profits. These can be advertising agencies, sellers of goods and services, headhunters, political parties, moneylenders, scammers, blackmailers (who hunt for people's personal sensitive information), and whoever. They make the most of not wasting resources on the irrelevant audience and directing their ads to those who will more likely take action.

Cookies in Google Chrome
Your browser keeps all these cookies. Hijackers can steal them all

As for the intrusive activities behind browser hijackers, these are just how the rogue developers carry out their obligation to the advertisers. The latter must be disreputable enough to employ such promotion methods as the programs in question.

The worst situation is if the browser hijacker, which is itself an unwanted application, works as an ad or distribution platform for other criminals, who use it as a first step in a sequence of events that lead to you sustaining actual losses: business-related, financial, or reputational.

Browser Hijackers' status

The "browser hijacker" term is somewhat ambiguous. Digital security vocabularies use it to signify PUAs (potentially unwanted applications) and full-fledged malware. The former, although oriented towards users' inattentiveness and ignorance, need users' consent to be installed. They are also relatively easy to remove. The latter, on the contrary, is installed stealthily, unbeknownst to users, and more difficult to detect. In recent years, browser hijackers often appear as browser extensions or plug-ins. However, they can also reside in other external files, modifying the browser but being harder to remove. But we'll touch upon this hereafter.

Hijacker detection Microsoft Defender
Hijacker detected by Microsoft Defender

Browser hijackers and rogue browsers are not the same. Although their harmful essence is the same at the end of the day, there is a difference. Rogue browsers are simply separate programs. Deceitful advertising lures users to download these programs and agree to make them their system's default browsers. In the case of a browser hijacker, the PUA deploys in the context of an innocent program, which makes it a somewhat more sophisticated and hard-to-remove threat.

How to Detect a Browser Hijacker?

If your browser gets hijacked, you'll most certainly face the following issues:

  • Your browser starts using a different search engine, acting poorly for its intended purpose by providing many unwanted links instead of relevant results. Sometimes, when attempting to set your previous search engine (e.g., Google), the browser continues using an alien one.
  • Unfamiliar panels appear in the browser, which might seem handy but will likely become annoying ad spaces. Glaring banners are hardly what you need when surfing the web. Suddenly changing your browser's homepage to some unfamiliar website is a typical symptom of a hijacking infection. The ability to change it back depends on the aggressiveness of the hijacker.
  • Pop-ups are the browser hijackers' trump card. Advertisements appear all over the field of view. Clicking a link may result in one or several advertising banners popping up, blocking elements of the desired website.
  • Self-invited redirects are another widespread tool of intrusive advertising. Trying to access a website may lead to an additional tab opening, loading one of the websites the browser hijacker pushes. This symptom is as typical for hijackers as it is irritating.
Browser redirect
Search query was redirected to a no-name search engine; all search results are advertising links
  • Other tricks browser hijackers might play include highlighting plain text on web pages and turning it into advertising links, a pretty inventive move. Another peculiar tactic is to block the user's access to browser settings, making it appear as if the program has frozen. This way, the hijacker add-on protects itself from being easily removed.

Examples

Obviously, for such a “soft” malware type, there could be hundreds and thousands of examples. But some of them are so widespread that it has become a common noun to a pest that sits in your web browser. Let’s review these favourites.

NameDescription
ShafmiaExample of a classic hijacker, that randomly redirects users and opens tabs with questionable content.
OxypumperOne of the oldest hijackers running these days. Spams users with ads along with random redirections and opening browser tabs with ad-infused pages.
CandyOpenCan install browser extensions without user consent; presumably has rootkit capabilities.
ShampooRedirects users to fake search engine pages, baiting the victims to click spoofed search results.
Leading (and similar Node.js-based malware)Another classic hijacker, that commonly mimics a legit utility for tracking the news or posts on a certain website.

Are Browser Hijackers Dangerous?

The risks imposed on your PC in case of a browser modifier infection derive from adware and spyware elements.

Adware Risks:

Adware worsens the computer's performance and annoys the user, but the hidden menace lies in the rabbit hole the adware can take you to. Since a browser hijacker is already an item from the Internet's "gray" realm, it is unwise to expect the advertisers who use its services to be more lawful. The risk of them being frauds as well is extremely high. Even if you are aware of the danger of following the links provided by the hacked browser, you cannot be protected from redirects to websites that can execute scripts automatically.

Spyware Risks:

Sure, it is impossible to make a full-fledged spyware from a browser hijacker. But that thing is still able to do some nasty things to you. Your cookies, search history, and activity hours info may cost a lot on the Darknet. In particular, cookies may contain much personal information, passwords, or other login information. Sharing it with a third party is not a clever step, even if you are not paranoid about your privacy. Search history and activity hours are pretty valuable for advertising agencies.

How to Protect Your Browser from Being Hijacked?

Browser hijackers are quite easy to avoid, especially if you know what to expect. People who distribute them do not rely on exploits, brute force, or other serious attack methods. Therefore, you may follow the basic cybersecurity rules to stay safe.

Stay Vigilant!

Browser hijackers exploit the lack of computer education. People who don't know that all necessary features are already available in classic browsers like Chrome, Edge, Firefox, and Safari might buy into the advertising of handy toolbars, extra security extensions, and other possible teasers. Browser extensions usually find their way to users' PCs via more or less open advertising. Still, it is also likely to sneak in as a free program and the other software you install. Therefore, avoid clicking on unknown banners and links.

Hijacker install
The offer to install "a useful browser tool" that is, in fact, a browser hijacker.

Use Decent Security Software.

Background anti-malware protection is a critical service all modern PC users should employ. Not only browser hijackers but also all sorts of malware swarming in the ocean of the nowadays web will be instantly detected and removed by GridinSoft Anti-Malware if you have it running on your PC. This software is a versatile, quick, and highly efficient solution for endpoint protection.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Browser Hijackers steal information?
Yes, some browser hijackers can steal information. Depending on the type, they may contain spyware elements or install keylogging software to collect sensitive data, such as authentication credentials, email details, and bank information. Users should be cautious and take preventive measures to protect their confidential data from these potential threats.
What are examples of browser hijackers?
Some notable examples of browser hijackers include: 1. Conduit (Search Protect): This toolbar is often bundled with free downloads and aims to steal users' confidential information by freely changing browser settings. 2. Vosteran: This type of hijacker changes search engine and homepage settings, and third-party apps can protect against this infection. 3. SourceForge Installer: In the past, SourceForge used PUP installers to change browser settings, but they announced a shift away from such practices in 2015.
What causes browser hijacking?
Browser hijackers typically infiltrate user systems without their knowledge or collaboration. They often originate from free advertising, shareware, and spyware. Commonly, they appear as browser plugins for Chrome or Firefox. Attackers deceive users into accepting additional downloads as a condition for installing desired software. Staying vigilant and avoiding unknown downloads helps prevent browser hijacking.
Has Google Chrome been hacked?
In early 2022, Google informed users of a security breach in Chrome. Although it's unclear if users' data was compromised, Google promptly released updates for Windows, Linux, and macOS to fix vulnerabilities. This underscores the importance of regularly updating operating systems to stay protected from evolving hacking methods.
Is a browser hijacker a virus?
While not a traditional virus, a browser hijacker is considered a type of malware. It is a malicious program that alters web browser settings, potentially leading to unauthorized access and data exposure. Users should treat browser hijackers seriously and take preventive measures, such as using security software and staying informed about potential threats.