What Is Malware?

What Is Malware?

What Is Malware?
Reading Time: 7 minutes

When the first personal consumer computers became widely available in the 90s, the general public was introduced not only to the wonders of home computing but also to the new dangers presented by computer viruses. Back in those days, computer viruses were relatively simple in their scope and complexity, but, as time passed, computer technology got more advanced, and so too did the people who created computer viruses.  

These days, there are a whole host of different types of viruses broadly known as malware. These harmful programs are much more dangerous than they used to be, and they target not only desktop computers, but also handheld devices such as tablets and smartphones. Modern malware aims to compromise the personal data and privacy of internet users, often with the aim of extracting money from people.

In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about modern malware and how it works, including what malware is, what malware does, how to know if your device has been infected, and the various types of malware that are prevalent in today’s day and age. We will also offer some suggestions on how you can protect yourself from malware, so you can keep yourself safe online and protect your personal data and privacy. 

Keep reading to learn all about the different types of malware, including viruses, adware, spyware, browser hijackers, Trojan horses, bots, ransomware, and worms, and how to protect yourself from each of these malicious viruses. 

What Exactly is Malware?

As mentioned above, malware is any computer or software file or program that has been intentionally designed to be harmful to a computer, mobile device, or computer network. Typically, these programs aim to either destroy a user’s computer, extort a user into paying money, steal the personal or financial information of users, or simply cause chaos for no apparent reason. 

How Does Malware Work?

The vast majority of malware infections happen when a user accidentally performs an action that allows for the malware program to get downloaded to their device. This can be something as simple, seemingly harmless as clicking on a link in an email, visiting a website, or downloading what is believed to be a trustworthy file or application. Sometimes malware is embedded on USB sticks and flash drives, so that when a user plugs those devices into their computer or mobile device, they are immediately infected with the malware, which begins working straight away. 

Nowadays, mobile users can also get malware viruses embedded on their devices directly through text messages, which means the malware spreads more easily than old-fashioned computer viruses because the user doesn’t need to directly download anything themselves to have their device infected.  

All malware is harmful in one way or another, but the different types of malware go about doing things very differently. Understanding what these things do and the difference between each type allows you to safeguard your devices and keep yourself secure while you are browsing the internet. Below we will explain the basic principles of what malware does, and we will go over each of the most common types so that you know what to be on the lookout for if you notice any suspicious activity occurring on your personal computer or smartphone device. 

What Does Malware Do?

In theory, almost all malware applications work in more or less the same way. Essentially, these applications work by placing a file or program on your device that you either open accidentally or that runs unbeknownst to you in the background. Depending on the type of malware infection that your device encounters, the damage can be simple and relatively benign or incredibly malicious and disastrous. Regardless of which type of malware you encounter, all of these programs have been designed to exploit devices in a way that is harmful to the owner of the device, and, as such, all of them should be avoided at all costs. 

How Will I Know If My Device Has Been Infected?

In most cases, it will be very obvious that your device has been infected with some sort of malware. Malware causes your device to misbehave or not function correctly at all; as such, it is difficult to miss a malware infection on your computer network or mobile device. That said, there are a number of telltale signs that you should always be on the lookout for, and if you identify any of them, then there is a very good chance that you have a malware infection on your device. Let’s go over the most common red flags of a malware infection now so that you can be aware of these telltale signs.  

Your Computer Slows Down Significantly

One of the most common signs of a malware infection is that your computer slows down significantly. This is because malware often reduces the speed of your operating system, which can present itself when you are browsing the Internet or simply using local applications on your device that require system resources. Oftentimes you will notice that your computer’s fan is working overtime as it attempts to cool your device off from the abnormally high system resource dedication, which is a clear red flag that something is amiss. This symptom most commonly presents itself when you have been infected with what’s known as bots or become the victim of what’s commonly known as a DDoS attack. 

Your Screen Is Flooded With Ads

Another sign that your computer has been infected with malware is that you are noticing a ton of annoying ads popping up either in your Internet browser or directly on your computer’s desktop. This is one of the oldest symptoms of a malware or computer virus infection that has been around since the 90s, but it is still as annoying today as before. This symptom is the hallmark of what’s known as adware, which is technically speaking one of the least harmful, but most annoying, computer malware attacks occurring today.

Your System Crashes Completely 

One of the more serious symptoms that you might encounter when you contract a computer virus or malware program is that your computer freezes or crashes completely often after encountering a fatal error. This symptom manifests itself in a few different ways, but the most common error is known as the blue screen of death on a Windows device. There are various types of malware that can cause this sort of system crash to occur. 

You Notice a Mysterious Loss of Disk Space

If you ever notice that all of a sudden, you seem to have way less disk space than you should have, then there is a very good chance you have been infected with what’s known as Bundleware, which is another type of malware code affecting computers today. This type of malware essentially hijacks your storage, making it so that you cannot access your files and depleting your system memory.

Your Browser Settings Change

Another red flag that you’ve been infected with some sort of malware is that your homepage has changed. You could have new plugins installed or notice that there are new toolbars or extensions installed that you’ve never seen before. Most often, these UI changes are accompanied by some sort of annoying popup asking you to download software that you’ve never heard of before and which certainly contains more malware. 

You Lose Access To Your Files Or Your Entire Computer

Perhaps the most dangerous type of malware is ransomware, which can cause you to lose access to all of your files and your personal information, as well as lose the use of your entire computer and possibly even your network. With this type of attack, hackers are deliberately targeting you, often with the intent of blackmailing you into paying money to regain your files or prevent them from being leaked online. 

Common Types of Malware

Now that we’ve gone over the potential symptoms of contracting malware, let’s look at each of the different types that are most prevalent, so you can be aware of what each one is and protect yourself accordingly. 

Viruses

Viruses are typically downloaded as an email attachment that includes some sort of hidden application that users are not aware of. Viruses differ in their scope and scale, but the general principle is the same: once the user opens the file, their device gets infected. 

Adware

Adware programs essentially spam unwanted advertisements either on the user’s desktop or when they try to run an Internet browser. Another common sign of adware is that it causes dozens or even hundreds of windows to pop up, which can prevent you from enjoying the use of your computer. Oftentimes adware gets downloaded when users are attempting to bootleg another software without paying for it. 

Spyware

Spyware is one of the most devious sorts of malware out there because, unlike the other malware we’ve been looking at, it doesn’t make itself known to users; instead, it hides in the background and spies on your personal information transmitting your browsing habits and details to a hacker or another user. Spyware programs allow hackers to monitor your communications, view your personal files, obtain your passwords, and potentially blackmail you for money.

Browser Hijacker 

A browser hijacker is a malware that redirects your internet browser to a specific website, most often with the intention of advertising something to you. Unfortunately, it can also be the case that a browser hijacker will automatically redirect your Internet browser to a site that will install some other sort of more malicious malware onto your device. 

Trojan Horses 

Trojan horses, most often simply referred to as Trojans, are nefarious malware applications that trick people into downloading them. Once active on your device, they then steal your personal data, including files, folders, and media. Some trojans can even crash your device completely, rendering your computer inoperable.

Bots

Robots, or bots as they’re commonly known, are applications that run preprogrammed tasks on your device. Oftentimes these bots create what’s known as a botnet, which essentially attacks other computers. When you have bots installed on your computer, your device essentially becomes a zombie, and it is under the control of the hacker. Botnets are typically used to distribute spam adware and other malware to other computers and devices on your network and worldwide. 

Ransomware

Ransomware is one of the most dangerous, and also one of the most profitable, forms of malware out there, and, for this reason, it is also one of the most common. Ransomware works by encrypting your personal files and folders so that you are unable to access them; hackers then demand payment in exchange for releasing your files back to you. Often even if you make payment, you will not regain access to your files, and it’s safe to assume that your personal information is being sold somewhere else on the Internet. 

Worms

Worms are essentially malware applications that copy themselves and spread between devices by exploiting a vulnerability in a software application on your device or within your operating system. This sort of malware doesn’t require any sort of user interaction in order to operate. 

How Can You Protect Yourself From Malware? 

The best way to protect yourself from malware is to have a good antivirus and anti-malware software. Some of the best and most common antivirus software includes McAfee, Avast, and AVG, but there are certainly many more on the market that do an excellent job of protecting you. 

Most anti-malware programs function by using firewalls and constantly updated security definitions so that even if you do accidentally contract some sort of malware infection, the harmful file can be segregated, contained, and subsequently removed from your device with minimal damage occurring to you, your computer, or your network. 

Conclusion & Recommendation

Malware applications these days are certainly much more malicious and harmful than their early predecessors from the 1990s. The best advice that anyone can give you when it comes to avoiding malware is to always be aware of what you’re downloading, never to click on anything suspicious, to avoid shady looking websites, and of course, to install and activate a reputable anti-malware program on all of your devices.

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