What is malware?

Malware, or malicious software, is the vehicle for tricks used by cybercriminals to con or deceive you. Finding out how to outsmart them is your best chance of staying safe online. You’re in the right place…

Malware and cyber security

Malware is not one, specific thing. It’s a category of nasties, an evil toolkit if you will, that covers everything from adware to rootkits. Cybercriminals of all stripes – hackers, scammers, thieves – will never stop trying to infect your computer and mobile with different types of malware to get what they want. And it isn’t just your devices that are vulnerable, but your home network too, if it isn’t properly protected.

The backstory of malware

Attacks, ranging from mildly annoying to financially harmful, could damage or destroy your machines at home. Most times, they’re designed to separate you from your money and gain access to your personal information.

Since Apple and IBM computers were attacked by worms and viruses in the 1980s, the threat’s become more complex because of the Internet. Yisrael Radai, a computer scientist, started to call these malicious software and others ‘malware,’ and the name’s stuck since the 1990s.

What does malware do?

From common computer viruses to invasive Trojans, there are different types of malware that cybercriminals can use for many reasons, such as to:

  • Rob your credit card details or make money mining Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies.
  • Damage your security, leaving you vulnerable to more devastating malware attacks.
  • Spy on you, track your browsing history or crack your passwords.
  • Trick you into giving your personal information away to identity thieves.
  • Lock you out of your device and steal or delete your files.

Hackers create and use malware to make money. Either by taking yours in cyberattacks, data or identity thefts. Or by selling their viruses, worms and other nasties to the highest bidders who want to damage, exploit or disable your devices, computer systems and home networks.

The 9 types of malware

Here are 9 examples of the most common malware. Find out what they are, how they attack your device and what happens during an infection.

It is important you protect yourself against them all by scanning for them constantly because many malware attacks are silent and you might not realise you were targeted until it is too late.

How does malware spread?

Many ways. You can be tricked into downloading malware, such as by:

  • Opening an email attachment or dangerous links in phishing emails, text messages or malicious adverts
  • Installing fake apps, programs or software that look legitimate

Meanwhile, hackers will keep finding ways to spread malware, so there’s no guaranteed way to be perfectly safe online. They could install malware remotely, getting in through flaws or backdoors in your security protection, or using an infected USB drive.

Also, no matter how vigilant you are about what you’re downloading, many types can infect your devices automatically. Worms, for example, spread without your help or permission by copying themselves.

Examples of malware in action

Let’s take a look back at the history books and explore the true power of malware. First stop, 2020 – an exploitative plague of Covid-19 phishing scams, spoofed the World Health Organisation and offered fake work-from-home jobs, simply to spread malware and steal personal information for identity thefts.

And the public aren’t the only ones under cyber-attack. Stuxnet, a worm built for US and Israeli intelligence agencies, destroyed enriching centrifuges when it infected Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. WannaCry being another extreme example of what malware can do – in 2017, it went to 150 countries and became the largest ransomware attack in history, causing $4 billion damages and infecting 10,000 PCs an hour. Governments, hospitals and universities were all effected. And that’s cheap, compared to the ILOVEYOU worm from 2000 which caused $15 billion damages.

4 ways to detect malware

You’ve now seen the many ways malware can spread and manifest but don’t worry, you’re not short on options for protecting yourself and your family’s computers at home.

Some are shy and hard to spot at first (Spyware, Trojans, viruses, worms), others are far more obvious if you know what you’re looking for (Ransomware, adware). Here’s how to boost your chances of spotting malware before too much damage is done:

How to remove malware

Get yourself some good security software, ideally a version that lets you schedule scans, so malware will be detected and removed automatically. Alternatively, Malwarebytes is a good option. An anti-malware tool, it can remove malicious software from your Windows, macOS, Android and iOS devices. For your computers, it’ll scan everything (registry files, running programs, hard drives, files) to find and delete threats.

How to prevent and protect against malware

Combine powerful, reliable anti-malware software with good online habits, such as these:

  1. Install anti-malware software to seek and destroy malware on your computer, including hard to remove dangers, including spyware.
  1. Get a reliable ad-blocker. That way, adware can’t bombard you with banners and pop-ups. You won’t be sent to dangerous websites by malvertising, where all manner of malware lurks, from Trojans to spyware. Not only will your browsing be safer, but you’ll feel less hassled and watched or pressured into spending.
  1. Check you’re on a secure website (the link will start, HTTPS) and only enter personal information when you’re sure you’re safe. Remember, large, reputable websites tend to be safer and more secure than small, local businesses.
  1. Read reviews and comments before downloading apps or new software, as a reliable way of checking it’s official, safe and legit.
  1. Backup your files, if you’re especially concerned about ransomware, so you won’t have to pay to get everything back if your hard drive’s encrypted.
  1. Try not to fall for phishing scams. Ignore unsolicited, poorly written, scam emails or messages asking for your password or personal information and never open suspicious attachments – the most common ways to be infected with computer viruses.

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