What Is Malware? The Truth Behind the Greatest Online Threat of Our Time

Learn what malware is and how to protect yourself from the internet’s nastiest threats.

Ivana Vojinovic Image
Updated:

July 21,2022

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Malware is a term used to describe a wide range of malicious software that can infect your computer or device, including viruses, Trojans, worms, and ransomware. Malware can cause all sorts of problems for you, from slowing down your device to crashing it altogether. It can also steal your personal information or lock you out of your files until you pay a ransom.

Despite all the potential problems that malware can cause, many people still ask: what is malware and how do you delete malicious software? That’s why we’ve put together this guide on everything you need to know about the greatest online threat, including how it works and how to avoid becoming a victim of a malware strike. Keep reading to find out.

Outlining Malware

Malware is a general term used to describe software that is designed to cause damage to a computer, network, or individual user. Some malware is created for malicious purposes, such as stealing personal information or taking control of a user's system. Other computer malware is unintentionally created and spread by software developers who are unaware of the security risks involved in their code. 

Regardless of its origins, malware can cause serious harm to computer systems and networks. It can also be very dangerous because it can give hackers access to your personal information or allow them to take control of your system.

laptop and a pirate flag

The Effect of a Malware Outbreak

A malware intrusion can have serious consequences for both individuals and businesses. Once a device has been infected with malware, the attacker can gain control of the device and use it to commit fraud or steal sensitive information via malware attacks.

In some cases, attackers may also use malware to launch denial-of-service attacks that prevent legitimate users from accessing a computer or system. The damage caused by malware can be difficult and costly to repair, and it may also lead to data loss or theft

As a result, it is important to take steps to protect against hacking attacks. This includes installing security software on all devices and keeping it up-to-date, as well as using strong passwords and being careful about what you click on and download.

Virus or Malware

Malware and viruses are both malicious software that can cause harm to your computer. Both internet malware and viruses can infect your system and spread themselves to other computers, but there are some key differences between them. 

Malware is any software that is designed to damage or disable a system, or to steal data. This can include viruses, spyware, Trojan horses, and more. 

A virus, on the other hand, is a specific type of malware that replicates itself in order to spread throughout a system. While viruses used to be the most common type of malware, the rise of internet-connected devices has made other types of malware more prevalent. As a result, it's important to have security software that can protect you from all types of malware software, not just viruses.

Malware Escalation

Malware can spread in a number of ways. The most common is through email attachments, which is why it's important to be careful about what you open in your inbox. Other common methods include downloading infected files from the internet, visiting infected websites, or connecting to an infected network

code arranged as a skull

In some cases, malware can also be spread through USB drives or other external storage devices. This is why it's important to be careful about what you plug into your computer.

Signs of Malware Contamination

There are several signs that your computer may be infected with a malicious program. If you notice any of the following, it's a good idea to run a security scan:

  • Your computer is running slowly - Due to its aggressive design, malware directs a lot of CPU resources away from the victim’s device towards its needs. As a result, targeted computers experience performance slowdowns.
  • You see unexpected popup windows or ads - Adware's sole operating goal is to bombard the user with ads. Some other types of malware may also spam people with advertisements.
  • Your homepage has been changed - If your starting page or current web page gets redirected, it could mean that a malicious tool has changed your DNS settings. This is a clear sign that the system is infected with software malware.
  • You see a new app that you didn't install - Malicious software often installs more dangerous apps on your device to increase the scale or strength of the attack. If you notice a program you're sure you didn't install, it is almost certainly malware.
  • Your computer is crashing or freezing - Besides being a critical drain on RAM or CPU resources, this kind of software may cause computer crashes on its own. 
  • Your friends and acquaintances get strange messages - Some malicious code expands by reaching your contacts via email or messages. If your friends are getting strange messages from you, something is seriously wrong.
  • You receive a ransom note - One of the unmistakable ways to know that you’ve fallen victim to a malicious attack is if you get a ransom note on the screen. Ransomware is always direct and highly visible.
  • You notice a corrupted or missing file - In order to maximize the damage done to the computer, malware often deletes or makes files unreadable.

Resorting to Malware

Hackers use malware for various reasons. Most of them are malicious in nature, but some can be a statement on current events.

Data theft: The most prevalent use for malware is to commit identity heists, which often result in valuable data being sold on the dark web to other cybercriminals. They can use it to steal money or run a new malware attack.

Extortion: Malicious software like ransomware can encrypt users’ data or even lock their entire computer. The device may be unlocked if the victim pays money to the attacker for the decryption key. Ransomware mostly targets large companies and public institutions such as hospitals.

Corporate espionage: Speaking of large companies, malware is often used as a means of obtaining business secrets from competitors. This might sound like a premise for a cyberpunk novel, but these forms of attack are becoming prevalent today.

Cyberwarfare: This involves a malicious act of espionage or a malware cybercrime attack on a government level. Countries like China are often accused of conducting cyberwarfare to steal secrets and damage government agencies.

DDoS attacks: In distributed denial-of-service attacks, cyber criminals use a network of zombie devices to launch wide-scale attacks on websites. Zombie devices are usually computers infected with malware that gives cybercriminals full or partial control of the device. These machines cause the server to overload and cease working for a certain period.

Sabotage: In certain instances, causing mayhem and damaging systems as heavily as possible are the only malware effects cybercriminals care about. They remove files and records or prevent organizations from working, which causes damage that can reach millions of dollars.

Site redirection: In these data thefts, malware redirects users to specific companies’ sites, while it conducts massive data breaches or uses spyware to steal users’ access credentials.

Crypto mining: With the rise of cryptocurrencies, mining fraud activities are becoming commonplace. When users visit a specific site or use an untrustworthy app, malware hijacks the users’ computer power to mine crypto coins and generate revenue without victims even knowing about it.

Business opportunity: There are several types of ransomware that developers can buy as a RaaS (the malware definition of ransomware-as-a-service). Just as you would buy a license to run a program, developers can buy ransomware licenses for their own nefarious purposes.

Law enforcement and espionage: Sometimes, government agencies or the police resort to malware to spy on the online activity of citizens or suspects, then gather this data for their investigations.

Types of Malware

There is a range of different types of malware that can infect your computer or device, each with its own unique features and dangers. Some of the most common types of malware include: 

Viruses: The most widely known malware examples are viruses, which are designed to spread themselves to other devices. Viruses can cause serious damage to your system and can be very difficult to remove. 

Router viruses: This is a type of malware that specifically targets routers. It allows the attacker to take control of the router and use it to redirect traffic, steal data, or launch denial-of-service attacks.

Macro viruses: This type of malware infects Microsoft Office documents, including Excel or Word. It allows the attacker to execute malicious code on the victim's computer when the document is opened.

Trojan horses: By definition, malware that masquerades as a legitimate program or file in order to trick users into downloading it is known as a Trojan horse. Once installed, this kind of malware can give attackers access to your system and allow them to install additional malware. 

Worms: A worm is malware designed to spread itself to other computers or a whole network of machines. It can be very difficult to remove since worms replicate without a host file.

Spyware: This type of malware collects information about you without your knowledge, then transfers the data to hackers. It can track your online activity and allow remote access to attackers to steal your passwords or even take control of your webcam. 

Keyloggers:  This is a malware software definition for spyware that records everything you type, including passwords and confidential information. It can then send the data to the attacker, who can use it to gain access to your accounts. 

Ransomware: This type of malware encrypts your files then demands a ransom to decrypt them. It can be very difficult to remove, and may even result in the loss of your data if you don't have a backup.

Adware: Adware displays unwanted advertisements on your computer or device. Through these ads, this malware can generate profits for the bad faith actor. Adware itself may contain more malware that further undermines the device's protection.

Botnets: This sort of malware stands for a network of infected computers that are fully or partially controlled by a hacker. The attacker can use the botnet to launch attacks, send spam, run DDoS attacks, or commit fraud.

Scareware: As its name suggests, scareware uses fear to trick you into buying a fake security program or paying a ransom. It usually takes the form of a popup message that warns you of an imminent threat, such as a virus or spyware infection. 

Cryptominers: This malware uses your computer's resources to mine cryptocurrency for the attacker. Cryptominers can slow down your system and use up a lot of electricity, so your utility bills can skyrocket because of this malware. This means crypto hackers can use the browser hijacking method to gain access to your computer.

Rootkits: These allow an attacker to gain administrator privileges on your computer or device. Rootkits can be very difficult to remove and can give the attacker complete control of your system. You might need a special rootkit removal program to remove this kind of digital pest.

Logic bombs: Logic bombs are programmed to perform an action when certain conditions are met. For example, a logic bomb might delete all the files on your computer if you try to access a certain website.

Browser hijackers: The purpose of this malware is to change your browser's settings, such as your home page or search engine. It can also redirect you to malicious websites that attempt to install more malware onto your system.

Backdoors: A backdoor is malware that allows an attacker to gain access to your system without having to use a password. It gains remote access via file servers or databases. Once a backdoor is installed, the attacker can do anything they want on your system, including stealing your data, installing more malware, or taking control of your webcam. 

Fileless malware: This type of malware doesn't rely on files to infect your system. It can be difficult to identify this malware and remove it since it runs on memory and doesn't leave any traces on your hard drive.

Malware's Origins and History 

The first known instance of a computer virus was the Creeper virus, which was released in the early 1970s. It was not malicious by its nature but was designed to replicate itself and display the message “I'm the creeper; catch me if you can” on infected computers. It was the first step in the creation of malware technology; indeed, we’d never ask the question “what is malware?” if it weren’t for the Creeper.

Since then, malware has become increasingly sophisticated and destructive, with new strains appearing on a regular basis. As the internet has become more ubiquitous, so too has malware; today, it is one of the biggest threats to online security. 

In 1988, a computer scientist named Robert Tappan Morris released a malware program called “the Morris worm.” It was designed to spread itself across the internet and infect as many computers as possible. The Morris worm was considered to be the first instance of worm malware that caused widespread damage. 

The Morris worm was so successful in part because it exploited a flaw in the way that Unix-based systems handled network communications. Malware and cybersecurity-wise, This flaw allowed the Morris worm to spread quickly and infect a large number of computers. The Morris worm caused an estimated $100 million in damage, making it one of the costliest cyberattacks in history

In the years since the release of this worm, malware has become increasingly sophisticated and destructive. WannaCry, for example, is ransomware that encrypts a victim's files and demands a ransom be paid in order to decrypt them. This particular strain of malware was responsible for causing billions of dollars in damage when it was released in 2017

Speaking of malware on computer devices, NotPetya is the most destructive known malware; it was responsible for $10 billion in damage when it was released in 2017. This malware encrypted victims' hard drives and rendered their computers unusable. Ukraine's National Bank was its most prominent target.

The Future of Malware

As technology advances, so does the sophistication of malicious software. Although current security measures can protect against many common threats, it’s important to be aware of the evolving landscape of malware in order to stay ahead of the curve. 

When we talk about malware and security, we need to mention one of the most significant trends in the world of malicious tools: the rise of ransomware. In 2021, there were 2,690 recorded instances of ransomware attacks, a 92.7% increase compared to 2020. North America and Europe were the victims of 83% of these ransom attacks. And according to industry professionals, we can expect to see the number of ransomware attacks increase exponentially in the coming years.

In the near future, AI and machine learning will also play a role in the development of new malware, as attackers use these technologies to automate their efforts and change the meaning of malware. In addition, the increasing use of cloud-based services is likely to create new opportunities for attackers

As businesses migrate more of their data and applications to the cloud, they will become increasingly reliant on security solutions that are specifically designed for this environment. Ultimately, the future of malware is likely to be more sophisticated and more damaging than anything we have seen before. 

Conclusion

No matter how evolved malware becomes, we need our protection tools to keep pace with the development of malware and its meaning in the globally connected world. To protect your computer from malware, it’s important to have a strong defense against it. This includes having a good antivirus program installed on your computer as well as keeping your operating system and software up to date. It’s also important to be aware of the signs of malware so that you can take action to remove it from your system as quickly as possible.

FAQ
What is malware in simple words?

Malware is any form of software created to cause damage to a single device, a network of computers, or the user directly.

How can you tell if you have malware?

Malware attacks, by definition, cause many signs of strange computer behavior. Degraded computer performance is the most usual, while other signs include sudden ad popups while browsing the internet, the appearance of apps you know you didn’t install, and constant computer freezes or crashes. Other symptoms include getting a ransom note on your screen, a file that is missing or inaccessible, your contacts receiving spam or error messages, or your homepage being switched for another unknown site.

Is malware a virus?

Malware is a broad term for malicious software, of which viruses are one type.

How do I remove malware?

The best way to protect yourself from malware infection and delete it is to use an internet security program such as an antivirus, antimalware, or anti-ransomware app.

Can Windows Defender remove a Trojan?

Yes, you can remove Trojan horses via Windows Defender, an antimalware app that has been free to Microsoft Windows users since Windows XP. Type Windows Security into the Windows search box, then select the Virus & threat protection. Click on Scan options, press Full scan, and click on the Scan now button. When the scanning is complete, this tool will remove any known Trojans that are present in your system. With its extensive library, Windows Defender can not only comprehensively answer the question “what is malware?”, but it can also protect your device.

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