Malware, or malicious software, is an umbrella term for any kind of software created to cause harm. Protecting against malware is a multi-billion-dollar market with fierce competition. Different types of security solutions exist for home users, enterprises, and everything in between.
Malware doesn’t just affect desktop and laptop computers. Smartphones and tablets, while far more secure against malware than PCs, are still susceptible.
In this article, we’ll explore the topic of malware: how it works, what it does, and how you can protect yourself against it.
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Malware isn’t all homogenous. Lots of different kinds of malware do different things. However, they all have one thing in common: malware helps its creator at the expense of the victim and their computer.
Many kinds of malware exist; more appear every year. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of malware types and its definitions:
Different kinds of malware spread differently. Some types, like viruses and worms, are characterized by how they spread.
Although some kinds of malware spread with no user interaction, email is the most common distribution method for malware. According to data from Cisco, over 90% of malware infections start with malicious or infected emails.
Mobile device malware generally spreads through infected apps on third-party app stores, although it occasionally ends up in the official platform store as well.
Like other white-collar crime, malware is generally intended to make money for its creator. Although some of the first worms were experiments or toys, modern malware is a serious crime.
Each specific type of malware makes money or gains power in a unique way. Banking trojans, for example, serve to steal banking credentials, allowing attackers to drain victims’ bank accounts. Some spyware is used to blackmail victims with sensitive data. Other malware is built for industrial espionage.
Although many kinds of malware don’t leave a trace, others are less subtle. Adware is very easy to detect: you’ll start seeing ads in places you wouldn’t expect them. Ransomware is similarly easy to detect—you’ll see the ransom message. Other times, the only symptom is a slower computer.
Antivirus software can detect common malware with reasonable accuracy. If your antivirus software warns you that you have malware installed, heed its warnings. False positives, while possible, are fairly rare.
Whether you’re using a PC or a Mac, there are some of the things that you should do if you suspect that your device was infected by malware. Here’s a step by step how you could remove it without losing all your files in the process.
The first thing you have to do is unplug yourself from the Internet. It would even be better to disable the home router as well. This is because most malware types have some mechanisms to prevent them from being shut off. They might be pumping your private data into the hacker’s home server. When you disconnect, the main link to your device is broken. If you disable the whole router, it’s an even better choice since that way, you completely disappear from the radar.
Assuming that it isn’t ransomware and you can actually access your system, what you should do is boot into your system’s Safe mode. It launches only the core functionalities of your system. That’s why Windows 10 even have a separate partition for system files when it installs. Here’s how to enter this mode:
If you’re able to boot in a safe mode, this means that the malware didn’t corrupt the essential system files, so it’s a pretty good chance that you’ll be able to clean up. If you’re unable to enter even into the safe mode, it might be that you should resort to system wipe.
If you can, you should get a thumb drive and download the malware from a separate machine and network. Plugin the thumb drive and install the antivirus, perform a scan. Resolve any identified threats. It’s also a good practice to use antiviruses from different makers. That way, you will rely on the highest malware labs data, which might include the one that currently inhabits your system.
Various malware types usually mess up your default browser’s homepage to infect your system the next time you connect to the Internet. While you’re there, uninstall your current browser and delete all saved settings. Don’t forget to delete the cache. It will help if you reinstall it once you confirm that the malware is gone.
Finally, you should initiate a normal startup and boot into normal mode. You can go to the process monitor to verify that nothing suspicious is running in the background. To be on the safer side, you should always perform another antivirus scan once you’ve booted into the system. If it returns no errors, you should be in the clear.
Wiping your computer is another effective way to remove malware. This involves a few general steps:
We talk about this in great detail in the article on how to remove malware from Android or iPhone devices. For example, here are the things you can do if you get a virus on your smartphone:
Hundreds of corporations offer software that protects against malicious software. However, some work better than others. Plus, the tradeoffs differ between antivirus programs. Some emphasize extra features, while others focus solely on speed and performance.
Both macOS and Windows include antivirus software out of the box. Windows has Microsoft Defender preinstalled, while macOS includes a variety of security features like XProtect and Gatekeeper. While these options are great baseline protection, they’re not enough for many computer users today.
Your cell phone or tablet can also fall victim to malware. To protect yourself there, only install apps from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. Most smartphone malware comes from third-party app stores and sideloaded apps. Additionally, keep your device up to date to avoid worms and other similar malware that relies on security vulnerabilities.
Believe it or not, the humble beginnings of malware were not so malicious at all. In fact, the very first “virus”, the Creeper, was created in 1971 by Bob Thomas as an experimental computer program. It could spread itself by using local connections, displaying the message “I'm the creeper: catch me if you can” without causing any damage to the infected device.
Another notable piece of malware was called Elk Cloner. Created by a 15-year old as a joke, it was the first virus found “in the wild” and could infect a device (in this case, Apple ll computers) through infected floppy disks. Just like the Creeper, it was completely harmless - it simply showed you a short poem about itself.
However, things started to get serious in 1988 when Vienna, a MS-DOS virus, was discovered. It was much more malicious than its predecessors because it actually caused trouble to the user by corrupting files. Around that time, lots of other viruses started to appear, including Lehigh and Cascade.
One of the biggest offenders at that time (1989) was the AIDS Trojan, the very first ransomware that would pave the way for the most annoying and dangerous threats in the future like Petya and WannaCry.
Since then, more and more dangerous pieces of malware started appearing, including some notable examples:
Today, viruses and malware are a huge problem yet to be solved. Thankfully, you can avoid most of the threats by having a reliable antivirus tool and practicing cyber hygiene.
Even though antivirus software is useful, you can improve your security further by going beyond simple file scanning. Many Internet security suites and corporate endpoint protection solutions scan email attachments, websites, and other common attack vectors. Gmail and Outlook also scan attachments by default.
Protecting against the potential effects of malware is often just as important as protecting against malware itself. Ransomware encrypts files, so having a backup of your data beforehand makes it a lot less dangerous. Using multi-factor authentication means that credential-stealing spyware can’t log into your accounts without you approving the second factor.
No matter what software or techniques you choose to use, vigilance and common sense matter. Most malware requires convincing you that it’s legitimate, so stay on your toes and don’t trust software blindly.
Yes and no. Malware is an umbrella term for all kinds of malicious software, while a virus is a type of malware able to self-replicate and insert its own code into other software.
Yes. Some types of malware can significantly slow down your device, making it downright unusable.
Hackers create malware for a lot of reasons. Data theft, spying, blackmail, and even pranking are among the main reasons for malware creation.
Yes. In general, Macs are safer than regular PCs, as they are more resilient to malware and viruses. However, malware for Macs still exists, and you have to take the same safety precautions you would take when using a PC.