Just about everyone understands what a computer virus is. Yet, when installing security programs on their systems, the term “virus” is often coupled with “malware” — a term that may be unfamiliar to most people, though it’s actually a more all-encompassing.
Malware can pose significant risks to your system and the systems of people within your contact network. That’s why understanding the nature of malware is the first step to strengthening your online security protocol.
Malware is an abbreviated form of the phrase “malicious software.” By malicious, we mean any software designed to do harm, so technically a computer virus is malware even though it’s often classified on its own. Or, in laymen’s terms, malware is software you don’t want, doing things you never agreed to.
Let’s take a closer look at how malware usually spreads. In most cases, malware is delivered in one of three fashions:
Falsified email: We’ve all gotten emails pretending to be something they’re not. Often times, these are easy to identify and discard. However, sometimes the emails of our contacts get hacked and malware is sent as an attachment through these accounts.
Embedded in an installation: There are so many ways to download software across the web. However, unless you’re getting it through an official source, there’s always a chance it may contain malware. For example, if you search for, say, video editing software, you may find multiple links for an application. Only one of those links is from a trusted official source; others are random websites and those could link to malware-infused installations. That’s not to say they necessarily will, but it’s important to keep your guard up.
Disguised as something else: Maybe you thought you were downloading video editing software — but if that’s the case, why didn’t that actual software install? Instead, you were left with vague notifications and perhaps a sneaking suspicion that things weren’t what they seemed. Whether downloaded off the web or as a torrent, a lot of malware is spread through simple trickery.
What does malware actually do? Just about anything. Malware might be used in completely malicious ways to spread data destruction or it might be used in “legal but unscrupulous” methods. An example of the latter is a company installing statistical tracking data when you install their software. It’s technically not doing anything bad, and you may have even agreed to it in vague terms with their user agreement, but it’s still using your system for their own purposes. In addition, tracking your personal data is an invasion of your privacy.
In some cases, malware is written to be extremely difficult to both detect and eliminate. This can be due to the fact that it’s disguised as something else, but in a worst-case scenario, software known as rootkits are configured in a way that they’re nearly undetectable from users when looking at the system’s task manager.
Because of this, there may be no direct indicators of malware. Instead, you’ll want to look for general symptoms, such as random browser pop-ups (usually with extreme “Danger! Click here!” messages) or general system slowdown thanks to malware eating up resources. Should you encounter anything strange, the best course of action is to download an anti-malware tool and do a thorough system scan. These tools will identify malware and provide you with the option to either quarantine or remove the associated files.
Malware is constantly evolving thanks to programmers staying ahead of the curve. Fortunately, once you learn to identify the usual tricks behind malware, it becomes much easier to avoid. And when you’ve armed yourself with a good anti-malware tool, you’ve protected yourself from letting your computer become a tool for anonymous hackers. As with the real word, a combination of educating yourself and common sense can often be the best defense against people that want to do you harm.