What Is Malware – How To Defend Against It


We trust our computers and other digital devices with a lot of information about ourselves these days. It’s becoming more and more normal to have large parts of your life “digitalized”, accessible remotely to anyone with the right credentials. And while some people don’t put much thought into this situation and consider it normal, it actually has some very important implications that everyone has to consider.

Cybersecurity is becoming something that everyone needs to have at least a baseline understanding of. It’s no longer an obscure field of knowledge only reserved for computer geeks and other enthusiasts. Anyone working with digital devices on a daily basis has a responsibility to develop at least a basic understanding of the underlying technology.

When it comes to internet security, one of the best starting points is malware. It’s something that you’ll have to deal with quite often if you use your computer frequently, and it’s becoming increasingly challenging to deal with some types of malware today.


What Is Malware?

Malware is a general term that encompasses all types of software designed with a malicious purpose. Most people use the term interchangeably with other words like “virus” and “trojan horse”, but that’s not quite correct. Viruses and trojan horse infections are just specific types of malware, but the term malware itself has a much broader scope than that.

It’s important to know what the different, common types of malware are, how to recognize them on the web, and what you can do in case you suspect your system is infected. As long as you’re vigilant and keep observing some important points, you should be able to stay relatively safe and avoid an infection.


How Does a System Get Infected with Malware?

There are several common ways to get infected with malware threats. Most of them require some form of human interaction, with some rare exceptions.

* Most often, you’ll download an infected file and execute it on your system. Some people might even do this despite the constant warnings from their antivirus applications. Once you’ve allowed an infected file to run, it can have pretty much free reign over your system, and can cause a lot of damage fast.

* Sometimes, you don’t have to download anything specific. Simply visiting an infected site could be enough to get infected with malware if your browser is out of date. Some attacks might rely on targeting specific components used by your browser, rather than the main browser itself. That’s the main reason certain plug-ins have been deprecated and are no longer allowed to run on most modern browsers.

* Outdated software is actually the number one way to get infected with malware. If the attacker behind the tool is crafty enough, they can target an application on your system that doesn’t even require any interaction on your part. That’s why having a firewall on top of your antivirus or anti malware software is never a bad idea.


Symptoms Of a Malware Infection

There are various ways to tell if your computer has been infected with malware. They will vary from one type of attack to another, and there’s no surefire way to tell that something is wrong. The most advanced forms of malware will take extra precautions to avoid raising any red flags, making it even harder to figure out that you’re being attacked.

* System performance issues are the first sign that most people tend to notice. If you’re a gamer, you might catch wind of this sooner than most people. If your favorite games suddenly start running worse than before for no apparent reason, that’s something you should investigate.

* Your hard drive filling up with data without you doing anything out of the ordinary is another common sign to watch out for.

* You might also notice performance issues in other areas, such as your internet connection. Some types of malware exchange a lot of data with their “home servers”, and as a result they slow down your own connection significantly.

* Watch out for changes to your browser’s settings too. Many malware applications will do things like change your homepage, your default search engine, and other preferences. They might also disable your ad blocker and even insert new ads into every page that you’re visiting. If a website that you’re normally familiar with starts looking very different all of a sudden, and in a way that doesn’t match its regular style, this is something you should investigate.




How to Prevent Malware Infections

Prevention is mostly about staying vigilant and keeping your software up to date. Many forms of attacks are performed in stages, meaning that simply triggering the first part of the attack is often not enough to allow attackers to completely compromise you. With that in mind, if you notice something odd, you should immediately take a step back and evaluate the situation. Don’t do anything further, and especially don’t follow any prompts trying to create a sense of urgency. That’s often what attackers are relying on.

* As we mentioned above, outdated software is your number one enemy when dealing with malware. If you want to maximize your chances of staying safe, set up a schedule for updating all programs that you regularly use. Sure, it’s an annoying process, but it’s much better to take the ten minutes to do it once in a week, than to deal with hours of recovering your data after an attack. Also make an effort to constantly update your operating system, as this will ensure that new security patches are applied as well.

* Use an anti malware or antivirus program on your system to help with malware removal and protection against these threats. It’s highly recommended, especially today, to secure your system or smartphone device with a reputable and powerful internet security tool. There are many such programs available for download on the internet and its advised to use one that provides features like real time protection and regular updates.

Always make sure you take note of messages or notifications shown by your internet security software as they will often inform you of potentially malicious files or dangerous sites that you visit. Malwarebytes is a popular and powerful anti malware software that is used by many people today. See our review of Malwarebytes anti malware by clicking this link.

* Be wary of social engineering as well. This refers to the act of trying to manipulate you into performing something that would compromise your security. Social engineering is becoming increasingly common, and it’s even automated in some cases. For example, you might get a chat invitation from a random person online.

In conversation, they might ask you to check out their pictures or profile which is unfortunately only available at a specific website. The website might be loaded with malware and will attempt to attack you as soon as you visit it. Sometimes, these chats might go in other directions, such as asking you for a loan or something of that sort. The bottom line is, be suspicious of random strangers approaching you online for whatever reason.

* Be careful about what you download online and what websites you visit. Always scan newly downloaded files and email attachments before you open them to ensure that you don’t trigger a malware attack on your system.


Types of Malware

We already mentioned a few types of malware above, but deeper explanations must be addressed. While you can’t expect to be familiar with every single type of malware out there unless it’s your job to do so, you should at least take the time to learn about the most commonly encountered forms of malware and how to identify them.


1) Viruses

Many people like to use the word “virus” as a catch-all term for all types of malware, but a virus has a very specific characteristic: it attempts to replicate itself as much as possible. This can either be done on the local machine, infecting every file it comes across, or even over the network. A virus can be very problematic in linked environments like corporate networks, because having one machine compromised can often put the entire department at risk.


2) Trojan Horse

A trojan horse is specifically designed for the purpose of providing someone with access to your system. Typical features of trojan horses include the ability to look at the victim’s screen, go through their hard drive, spy on their communications, and more. All of that can be done remotely. With many modern trojan horses, it can even be done automatically. This means that an attacker doesn’t have to actively sit and watch what you’re doing as the trojan horse will collect all relevant information and present it to them whenever they need it.


3) Ransomware

Ransomware is a relatively new type of malware that saw a sudden boom in popularity a few years ago. The basic idea behind ransomware is to deprive the victim of something and request a payment to regain access. The simplest form of ransomware will simply lock down your computer with a screen that can’t be closed. More advanced ones will encrypt the contents of your hard drive, and will threaten to delete everything in a certain period of time. The victim is then instructed to make a payment, typically through a difficult to trace method, like cryptocurrency, in order to regain access to their system. Studies have shown that in a large number of cases, attackers do not in fact provide the promised keys upon receiving payment.


4) Worms

Worms are special types of viruses that focus on network activity rather than local infections. A worm would commonly exploit vulnerabilities in local networks in order to quickly replicate to other available hosts, and might keep itself updated remotely in order to be able to exploit the latest vulnerabilities that have been discovered.


5) Spyware

Spyware is similar in functionality to a trojan horse, but it’s not as directed. It’s designed to have a more wide sweeping approach, spreading on various computers and collecting information about them. That information is then sent to servers which aggregate it, usually for marketing purposes. As a result, spyware tools are commonly “interested” in things that can be exploited for monetary gain, like your browsing history, online shopping activity, as well as interactions with your bank accounts and other payment instruments.


6) Adware

Adware is an even more specialized version of the above, designed specifically to present the user with ads and even modify the websites they’re visiting dynamically. Common effects of adware include having your browser redirected to strange search engines, new toolbars showing up, as well as ads popping up on websites that normally should not have them. Adware is more of an annoyance than an actual security threat for the most part. But it can still drain system resources, and in some cases, ad networks have been known to deliver malware injected into their content.


7) Keylogger

Keyloggers are one of the most tightly specialized types of malware. They’re designed solely for the purpose of capturing keystrokes (and in some cases, mouse gestures). An advanced keylogger will detect exactly what you’re doing when typing each key. For example, if you’re typing it in the password field of a website. Given enough time, a keylogger can collect all of your login credentials for websites that you often use, and that’s why it’s a good idea to use a password manager.


8) Rootkit

Rootkits are highly advanced types of malware, and they’re usually a combination of applications rather than a single one. A rootkit is designed to provide significant access to a user’s computer. The word “root” is commonly used in tech circles to refer to the administrator’s account (it’s actually the official name for these accounts in Linux and similar operating systems), and that’s where this type of malware gets its name from. Sometimes, a rootkit might provide an attacker with even more access to a victim’s system than the victim themselves have, which can have some scary implications if you’re using that system for sensitive tasks on a daily basis. The worst part is, rootkits can be extremely difficult to detect because they can modify the operating system on a fundamental level, preventing common detection methods from working.


9) Exploits

Exploits aren’t technically a type of malware by themselves, but they’re a tool commonly used by many types of malware for gaining access to a system. In basic terms, an exploit is a software defect with unexpected side effects which provide the person utilizing the exploit with more access than they should normally have. For example, an exploit in your e-mail reader might allow a hacker to read forbidden parts of your computer memory, without even requiring you to open any attachments! Exploits can be difficult to combat, and the most effective thing you can do to prevent them is to keep all of your software up to date.


Malwarebytes is a very well respected and widely used anti malware software that we recommend when it comes to protection against malware threats. Learn more about the great features of this internet security software at the Malwarebytes website.