What Is Malware? How to Protect Yourself Against Malicious Software

What Is Malware? How to Protect Yourself Against Malicious Software
Graphics: Nathaniel Blum

What Is Malware? How to Protect Yourself Against Malicious Software

S.E. Slack
November 4, 2019

If you watch or read the news even a little, you know that hackers target big businesses daily with all kinds of new attacks. Sometimes the goal is theft of money or information; sometimes it’s simply to disrupt the business to create havoc for everyone. Regardless of intent, it all involves malware. The most frightening part is that these hackers don’t just aim for businesses; they could be using malware to try to steal from you and try to damage your computer, too.

What is malware?

Malware is a catch-all term to describe all kinds of malicious software. By definition, it is software intended to damage a computer, mobile device, computer network, or to take control of computer operations.

The evolution of malware can be traced as far back as 1949 to a scientific paper that explored how a computer program could reproduce itself. The Creeper worm, a self-replicating program created in 1971, is considered the first actual computer virus. From there, criminals took on the concept and began twisting it into the big, dark business it is today.

Beyond its laser-focused twin goals of theft and destruction, the biggest problem with malware is that new programs are created daily. AV-Test, an IT security institute, registers over 350,000 new malicious and unwanted programs every single day. The increase in this kind of threat is mind-boggling: according to research firm Cybersecurity Ventures, cybercrime will cost the world $6 trillion annually by 2021, up from $3 trillion in 2015. The Equifax breach in 2017 was caused by malware, and it affected 147 million U.S. consumers. Numbers like that mean that anyone, anywhere can be a target.

How does malware work?

The basic idea behind malware is to spread itself into and become part of other computer programs. If you connect to the internet in any way, whether it’s surfing the web, downloading a program or reading an email, you’re at risk of malware finding its way onto your computer.

Malware is built for the hacker’s advantage, according to Jerry Honeycutt, President, Honeycutt Inc. Because of that, you must always be on the defense.

“It might be designed to mine bitcoin using your electricity, to steal your financial information and passwords, to steal information from your company, or to move on from your machine to more high-value targets on your network,” Honeycutt said.

Hackers use malware because they want something from you: money, identity, information and more. Whatever they steal, they either use it directly or they sell it to others. Hackers send out their malware most often through weak links involving email and the web. All it takes is opening one wrong attachment or a click on a bad link for an entire computer or network to be compromised.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take any action from you at all: the latest malware injects itself into pop-up web advertisements without requiring a click. If you land on the page where the infected ad is located, your computer will instantly download whatever malicious program happens to be waiting.

Common examples of malware

One reason malware is so prolific is that it can take on many forms. There’s no single thing you can look for, so you must be on guard for anything suspicious involving your computer. Here are the most common types of malware to be aware of:

  • Virus. In its most basic form, a computer virus is simply a software program that installs on your computer through a host file such an email, message or other attachment. A virus is designed to use the host file to make harmful changes or obtain information without your consent.
  • Worm. Similar to a virus, a worm enters your computer through the opening of an email or message. A worm tunnels into your computer and causes damage by making copies of itself to spread quickly from network to network through infected files.
  • Trojan. In this case, malware masquerades as legitimate software that, once installed on your system, turns on you by deleting, blocking, modifying, or copying data and disrupting your computer’s performance.
  • Ransomware. Sometimes referred to as scareware, this malware locks your computer and/or encrypts documents, then displays messages on your computer screen that demand payment of some sort to release your own computer back to you.
  • Spyware. This version infiltrates your computer or phone primarily with the intent of stealing sensitive information from you. It literally spies on you as you type in passwords, credit card details, and other personal data so it can capture the information for use elsewhere.

How can I try to protect myself from malware?

Fortunately, there are many types of anti-malware protection programs that you can use to detect and remove threats before they cause damage to your computer or steal your information.

“Make sure you have next generation anti-malware installed on your computer, like Microsoft Defender ATP, which comes with Windows 10,” said Honeycutt. “Assume everyone on the internet is out to get you. Don’t click an interesting link without checking out the URL carefully, don’t assume every offer you receive in your inbox is legitimate, and don’t believe that every Facebook meme you see is just cute and silly.”

To try and avoid becoming a victim, stay proactive by following these tips:

  1. Use reliable antivirus software on all devices. Laptops, desktop computers and smartphones all need protection, even Apple products. No device is immune; do your research to determine which program will work best for your needs.
  2. Accept antivirus and other software updates immediately. Antivirus programs continually add updates to monitor your system for threats as new malware programs develop. Other software programs provide updates to block any vulnerabilities they might have uncovered since you installed the program.
  3. Use a firewall. It might be annoying to have a firewall blocking things but they do help protect your computer from hackers. If you have a home network, also use a hardware router that includes firewall protection.
  4. Never click on links in unsolicited texts or emails. Not sure who sent you that email? You can search an email address to try and learn more to potentially help evaluate suspicious communications.
  5. Don’t download software from a site you don’t know. File-sharing and freeware sites, for example, are well-liked by hackers who often bundle in malware with legitimate programs. Stick with sites you can confirm are legitimate.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.