What Is Malware? What It Does and How To Get Rid of It

Malware is the most severe threat internet users face. Statistically, it’s impossible to avoid, but you can defend against it.

Updated:

Jan 20,2023

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Every internet user should be aware of potential online threats that can compromise their data and hardware; malware is just one of them, but it is the most pervasive and varied. So, what is malware, and what should you be aware of if you’re ever unlucky to encounter it for yourself?

Malware Definition

Malware stands for software with a malicious purpose: For example, it could steal your credit card information for unapproved purchases, compromise any of your online accounts, encrypt your data, or just sell your private information to the highest bidder on the dark web. This software is designed to be intrusive, obfuscate its real intention, and catch you off guard.

Malware” is an overall term for different types of software like viruses, worms, trojans, ransomware, adware, and many other threats that cybercriminals have in their arsenal. Malware can compromise desktop computers, mobile devices, servers, and even whole computer networks. You shouldn’t take this threat lightly, so take the time to learn why there are billions of malware attacks every year.

What Does Malware Do?

Depending on the malware’s specific goal, each type has different targets and attack vectors. Keep in mind that the effects of it running rampant on your PC or smartphone can vary: In some situations, malware is simply annoying, while in others, it can have catastrophic effects.

On a more general level, the universal aim of all malware is to exploit the target for the attacker’s benefit. This can include providing remote control of the infected machine, using it to send spam, spying on the user’s local network, stealing sensitive data, and providing attackers with additional opportunities to exploit.

How Malware Infects Your Devices and How It Spreads

Malware can exploit various attack vectors to infect your computer. You should be aware of what malware is capable of and how you can become vulnerable to it:

  • P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing - while downloading files from strangers on the internet can seem innocuous, you may accidentally end up with malware disguised as a multimedia file.
  • Email attachments are another attack vector often exploited by hackers. When the recipient opens the attachment, the malicious code within is executed. Forwarding such emails results in more computers getting compromised, quickly infecting an organization or a computer network.
  • System vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit remotely without any actions from the user, and must be repaired by the software provider via patch.
  • Shady websites can infect your device by automatically downloading infected files or loading malicious ads as soon as you access them.
  • Phishing attacks are another method of delivering malware to a  computer. They are disguised as emails or websites that appear legitimate and can specifically target organizations, individuals (i.e., spear phishing), or just anyone.
  • Malicious applications - installing software from unofficial sources instead of legitimate websites or app stores is another way of getting malware on your device. Pay close attention to what kind of permissions you give apps, as they can specifically target your email or personal information.

Malware attacks often rely on their victim having their guard down. That’s why it’s convenient to use anti-malware software with an integrated web shield that can block you from accessing sites already known to be predatory. This is one of the main reasons we recommend always having software with adequate malware protection installed.

Types of Malware

Almost all antiviruses are built with the tools and resources to deal with most malware. Some are more efficient in dealing with specific strains, so you need to know what malware you can expect to employ the right option.

A malicious file detected on Windows 11
A malicious file detected on Windows 11

Spyware

As its name suggests, spyware is a kind of malware designed to keep a low profile on your device, collect information (whether it’s sensitive data or something that’s completely anonymized and irrelevant to you), and send it to a third party. The term spyware can also refer to more “legitimate” software used to collect data for commercial purposes, such as personalized ads.

Both options are privacy-infringing tools, but spyware with malicious intent specifically targets data that will lead to direct profit. Spyware is one of the malware types that’s the hardest to notice. It can reside on your device for a long time and gather information on your login credentials, PINs, credit cards, browsing history, keyboard strokes, and much more.

There are different subtypes of spyware; the most prominent ones are adware and keyloggers. Adware is something practically every internet user is familiar with, and most often comes along in the form of infamous pop-up adverts that can significantly disrupt how your smartphone or PC works.

On the other hand, as the name suggests, keyloggers log each of your keystrokes and send that information to malicious parties to exploit. Consider what someone with such information could do: Nothing would remain private, including your browsing history, private messages, and log-in credentials. 

Ransomware

Hackers don’t just steal your data to sell it, but can hold it for ransom. Ransomware effectively denies access to files through asymmetric encryption targeting individual users or entire organizations.

Computer malware of this type usually encrypts files such as documents, videos, and images. The victim receives the notification that, to regain access to their data, they need to pay a ransom, most often in Bitcoin or another crypto, to receive a unique private key that will decrypt the files.

Ransomware prevalence is growing significantly, and the damage it causes is measured in billions of dollars. Phishing is a method that’s often employed to deliver such malware to unsuspecting victims.

Botnet

A botnet, or “robot network,” consists of infected computers controlled by hackers who use their resources for different nefarious purposes. These computers are often used to execute DDoS attacks, email spam, data breaches, and more.

Owners of these infected computers are often unaware they are being used. Furthermore, they might also be unwittingly responsible for infecting other machines to join the growing network by sharing files they don’t know are infected.

Malvertising

Malvertising infects computers and smart devices through advertisement. While it involves online ads, the principles “regular” adware uses aren’t how this malware works.

Rather than delivering unsolicited pop-up ads, malvertising inserts malicious code into ads displayed on reputable websites. Unsuspecting victims may end up with malware on their devices by just loading the page (“drive-by download”) or redirecting to a malicious site.

Cryptojacking

Cryptojacking is another form of malware that’s on the rise. With the growing popularity of cryptocurrencies, this kind of malware has seen more use. Mining crypto is a hardware-intensive process that involves a lot of power consumption. Therefore, for hackers, the most profitable method of mining crypto is to have someone else do it for them, eliminating all the associated costs and getting all the benefits.

Cryptojacking can potentially damage your hardware and will certainly take up system resources and raise your electricity bills. Most often, CPU usage significantly increases. Therefore, if you notice that CPU activity is high while your PC is mostly idle, you should consider installing anti-malware software such as Malwarebytes.

Polymorphic Malware

Most malware examples listed here can be easily detected by appropriate antivirus software and indicated by degrading computer performance. Polymorphic malware is an example of how malicious software can be developed to avoid detection by constantly changing its characteristics.

RATs (Remote Administration Tools)

While there are remote administration tools that are used for legitimate purposes by system admins, there are also malicious strains that allow hackers to control your computer directly, access files, turn on your camera, and more.

Rootkits

RATs are not the only malicious programs that allow controlling access to infected devices: A rootkit is malware that gives hackers administrative privileges on infected computers. The term stems from Linux and Unix OS, where admin accounts are called “root.”

This malware often disguises itself as system files and can sometimes even persist even if you reinstall your operating system.

Trojans

Trojans are one of the best-known malware strains, due to their association with the mythical Trojan horse. Like their namesake, Trojans are used to deliver another type of malware to their target. Therefore, they also come in diverse forms and present a problem for all operating systems, including iOS and Android.

Viruses

The term virus is often used interchangeably with malware, but there is a significant difference. Malware is an umbrella term for all malicious programs, while a computer virus is a malware subcategory.

Viruses can self-replicate, attach themselves to other programs on your computer, and continue to spread to other devices. There are no operating systems safe from viruses, and there are plenty of attack vectors hackers use to deploy them.

Worms

Worms are similar to viruses, with one crucial difference. Viruses require some sort of human interaction to start their process of self-replicating and spreading, while worms are entirely automated. Most often, worms create backdoors on infected systems, allowing cybercriminals unhindered access for an attack.

How To Detect Malware on Your Devices

It’s almost inevitable that anyone using the internet will be exposed to a malware attack. How you deal with it will mostly depend on how prepared you are. Most likely, you are aware that Windows is an operating system that has some built-in protection against external threats. Unfortunately, it’s often not enough.

Windows Security Notification

Windows Security Notification

Since malware is installed without consent via malicious links, hijacked websites, ads, phishing attacks, and email attachments, users need active protection. Besides actively scanning for threats with antimalware solutions, there are some signs you need to pay attention to.

  • Computer or smartphone is slow to respond - malware takes up system resources and inevitably slows down your OS's performance. You may notice that some applications take up significantly more memory or that your computer’s fans are loudly spinning even though no demanding applications are active. If your smartphone is infected, you may notice that it gets warmer more easily or it’s hot constantly.
  • System crashes or Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) - fatal errors can be more than annoying for any user. BSOD can also indicate a hardware failure, which can potentially be caused by malicious software on your computer.
  • Pop-up ads are the definition of malware that’s made to be annoying and disrupt you from efficiently using your device. They usually come with other threats and potentially lead to phishing scams, so you need to be careful about what links you click on.
  • Changing browser settings - if you notice your homepage has changed or that your browser has new toolbars or extensions installed, it’s more than likely that you are dealing with malware.
  • Increased bandwidth usage - increased internet usage could indicate that your computer is now a part of the botnet, it’s downloading additional malware, or it’s being remotely used by a malicious individual.
  • Can’t enable your antivirus - some viruses can disable your antivirus from actively scanning for threats.
  • Lost access to personal files - by the time you find encrypted files, it may already be too late. Ransomware is easiest to recognize, as it leaves a ransom note next to files that it encrypts.

Blue Screen Of Death (BSOD)

Blue Screen of Death (BSOD)

Be aware that you might not even notice anything unusual going on with your system. Malware is usually designed to evade detection and do whatever it intends to do without alerting anti-malware software. Therefore, it’s better to be safe than sorry and have some protection prepared for such occasions.

How To Remove Malware 

The best way of dealing with malware threats is to download antimalware software appropriate for your operating system, whether it’s macOS, Windows, iOS, or Android. You can always check what products we at DataProt recommend.

After installing your program, run a complete scan. Most software solutions let you choose between a quick and an in-depth scan. Choose the latter and give it enough time to scan for threats.

You will receive a prompt informing you of the results. You will then have the option to either fix the issues or quarantine the discovered threats. If they are quarantined, you will have to take another step to remove them entirely from your device.

There are some precautionary measures you need to take, like changing all your passwords. You can’t be sure what data was stolen by malware, so it’s better to ensure any potentially leaked login credentials are no longer valid. If you were already using some of the best-performing password managers, you wouldn’t have to worry, as the data is encrypted.

How To Protect Your Devices Against Malware

So, what is computer malware’s common denominator? It’s the human factor. Opening a link without examining it more carefully or not updating your software is something you have control over, so you can be more careful and avoid mistakes. Here’s some general advice anyone using the internet nowadays needs to keep in mind:

  1. Using strong passwords - using small and capitalized letters interchangeably, numbers, and special characters is just a start. A password manager can also help out greatly.
  2. Using 2FA - two-factor authentication, like Google’s authenticator, can prevent automated attacks almost completely.
  3. Don’t open email attachments from unknown sources - it’s a common tactic for a phishing attack, so check who the sender is carefully and make sure they’re legitimate.
  4. Avoid clicking on pop-up ads - adware is a severe threat and should not be considered lightly.
  5. Avoid clicking on strange links - even if you receive a message from a known source, it could potentially be from a malicious party wanting to spread its influence.
  6. Keep your applications and OS updated - updates usually patch up security vulnerabilities that can be exploited.
  7. Download applications from official stores or websites - downloading from alternative sources such as peer-to-peer networks and shady websites could infect your device.
  8. Keep backups - we’ve seen how a malicious program goes after your documents, pictures, and video files. Keeping a cloud backup isolates them from any infection happening on your devices.
  9. Download cybersecurity software - a modern internet user has to have such programs in their arsenal.

Final Thoughts

Malware infection is by no means rare. Having security software to deal with computer viruses and other malicious files is necessary for a modern-day internet user. Using an infected computer or a mobile device can potentially lead to major issues, such as financial losses, compromised accounts, and identity theft.

That’s why it’s vital for both individuals and organizations to actively implement malware protection by using software that scans for threats. Furthermore, it’s essential to stay informed about different kinds of threats, as most malware depends on the human factor to spread the infection.

FAQ
What are some examples of malware?

There are many different kinds of malware; some of the most common ones are spyware, viruses, Trojans, worms, ransomware, cryptojackers, rootkits, and botnets. These malicious pieces of code are designed to steal or corrupt your data, take control of an infected device, or spy on the infected party.

How do I get rid of malware?

The best way to get rid of malware is to install software that will monitor your device for these kinds of threats. It’s also important to be aware of these threats and check what link you are opening, don’t automatically download email attachments, make sure you’re not using outdated software, and use only legitimate sources to download your apps.

What is a malware virus?

Malicious software or malware is a term that refers to all kinds of software threats for computers, mobile devices, and networks. A virus is a subcategory of malware designed to replicate itself and spread from one infected system to another.

What is malware, in simple words?

Malware is usually an infected file or piece of code that’s delivered through a computer network or the internet. The purpose of these files varies greatly; it can be to steal user data and financial information, or simply control the infected system remotely.

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