Malware is short for malicious software, it’s software designed with criminal intent. Often used to steal information, hold your family pictures for ransom, make pop up ads appear, or otherwise cause harm to your computer and finances. Malware is a broad term that refers to a variety of malicious programs. Here are the top five types of malware that can affect your family’s computer and the best ways to protect your device from malware.
The 5 Most Common Types of Malware
Ransomware essentially holds a computer captive while demanding a ransom. This malware typically locks your data (documents, pictures and movies/music) by encrypting user files on all drives your computer has access to. Then messages are displayed which are intended to force the user to pay a ransom to the malware creator. Without paying, the message implies your data will be lost forever.
Ransomware is one of the most successful types of malware to date, and not many of these attacks hit the news or are even reported. The best way to avoid being a victim of ransomware is follow all the malware avoidance guidelines (ransomware is often delivered like other malware programs), plus keep a backup copy of your data that is not connected to your computer. I recommend weekly backups to an external (portable) hard drive, and only plug in that drive weekly to complete the backup. Otherwise, paying the ransom may be your only choice to recover your files. Often, it’s $300-$500, although for business it can be a lot higher. Sometimes ransomware can be defeated through other means, but the 24-hour timeline typically given to pay is not enough for a serious attempt to bypass it. If it is discovered you cannot get around it, you may have missed the window to pay for the unlock keys. Most cases paying the ransom does result in recovering your data, as the criminals behind it need people to believe they will get access to their data back, otherwise no one would pay this fee.
Spyware is a type of malware that spies on a user’s activity, without their knowledge. These spying capabilities can include activity monitoring, key logging, data harvesting (user information, logins, financial data) and more. Spyware often has additional capabilities as well, ranging from modifying security settings of software or browsers to interfering with network connections. Spyware spreads by taking advantage of software vulnerabilities, being bunded with legitimate software, or in Trojans. Often the information gained is used for very targeted advertising, other times the information could be used for identity theft or to support criminals with local crime. The information can be sold to anyone. Spyware is a common cause of a slow running computer.
Adware (short for advertising software) is used to automatically deliver advertisements to you while you are online. Common examples include pop-up ads on websites, changed homepage and default search engines, and other advertisements that are displayed by the software. Sometimes applications offer “free” versions that come bundled with adware. Most adware is sponsored or authored by advertisers and serves as a revenue generating tool. While some adware is solely designed to deliver advertisements, it is not uncommon for adware to come bundled with spyware (see above) that is capable of tracking user activity and stealing information while annoying you with ads. Due to the added capabilities of spyware, adware/spyware bundles are significantly more dangerous than adware on its own, and becoming more common.
Trojans ( or Trojan Horse)
A Trojan often enters your system disguised as a harmless, legitimate program that you install. It could also be an attachment from a friend that you thought was safe. It’s easy to get tricked into downloading one, they can even be disguised as a program offering to speed up your slow computer. As soon as you install a Trojan, you are completely vulnerable for an attack, although you might never notice. Commonly used to download more malware, send spam (which includes emailing itself to your entire address book) and even destroy data on your computer. It is highly recommended to generally avoid installing programs that are not from a large and reputable software manufacturer (including apps) and scrutinize an attachment before opening it.
Virus and Worms
A virus is a harmful program designed to infect legitimate software programs. Once an infected program or app is installed the virus is activated. Commonly a virus will replicate itself across the computer infecting multiple programs making it difficult to remove and allowing it to spread easier. It’s next actions are more malicious, like deleting critical files within the operating system.
Similarly, worms are stand-alone programs that can spread to systems on their own. Unlike a computer virus, a worm does not need to attach itself to an existing program, and does not need anyone to run the worm. A worm runs itself and spreads itself across networks and systems, often without detection. Know that both worms and viruses can cause severe damage to systems because they are able to exploit shared files and databases, often with devastating results on business networks.
Best Ways to Protect Your Device from Malware
The important thing is to understand how to avoid malware. Luckily there are many ways to greatly reduce the risk.
- Run an anti-virus & anti-malware program
Ensure you are running an anti-virus program and preferably an anti-malware program as well. There are plenty of good free ones available, just make sure it is a reputable company. This goes for all computer systems, even the ones named after fruit. Malicious code is being written for all systems with a large enough user base, and this includes all mobiles as well.
- Be certain to run malware scans regularly (daily)
The next thing is to ensure you run malware scans regularly, luckily most reputable programs by default include an automatic scheduled scan that works great. You will also want to ensure it updates properly and frequently.
- Keep all software programs up to date
Be sure to keep all other software up to date as well. This includes the operating system and any other programs you might have installed (including games, office software, apps and plugins for browsers). The most popular desktop/laptop operating system does warn if your anti-virus is out of date, and will even help you update it, so don’t ignore any system notices you might see. Most software will update on its own, but it’s best to keep an eye out for any requests to update, and allow the updates. This also goes for all systems, including mobile devices.
- Remove old or unused programs that you no longer need
Old programs are especially vulnerable to attack across the internet, and every program you install on a system adds complexity and potential attack points. It’s best to only keep programs installed that you need, and be sure they get updated as well.
- Be suspicious and careful where you click!
This is the most important part of avoiding malware. You might see things pop up online promising to “speed up your computer” and telling you it’s running slowly, or about to fail. A good guess, nothing more, these programs are often loaded with malware and will not fix anything.
A rule I live by is that I never click on an ad. If I do see something of interest, I will search for it on my own. That very quickly lets me know if it is real or not. Sometimes malicious people will take out ads for real products as well, just to get you to click on their malicious link. Always use a spam filter, so you see less of those emails offering attachments or links that look harmless. Many of them are not, and the perpetrators are getting better and better at fooling us. Scrutinize all attachments, it’s best to pick up the phone and ask a friend if they really sent that attachment to you.
Remember, most malware requires the user to click on it, whether it be an attachment or a link. By being more careful where you click, you can save yourself an up-close look at one of the programs listed above.