In the 1990s and early 2000s, the main cyberthreat we all focused on were viruses, which are malicious, sneaky files that can replicate themselves – much like a virus that causes disease in living organisms. These days, it’s more useful to talk about the broader category of “malware” or “malicious software.”
Malware can be used to do everything from steal a bank account password, or to hold hostage a country’s gas supply. What are the different kinds of malware? How can we get rid of malware, and prevent it from infecting our computers again and again?
What are the different types of malware?
There are many different types of malware—viruses are one of them. Here are some of the main ones:
- Viruses. A virus can’t activate itself on its own, which means that even if you have a virus on your computer, it will just hang out there until you open the program or document that it’s sitting in. The purpose of a virus is to infect programs and make them malfunction or crash by deleting or modifying files. Fortunately, computer viruses per se are not very common these days.
- Worms. A worm is a type of virus that may sap a computer or networks’ resources, steal data, or create an entry point for hackers. The defining characteristic of worms is that they don’t require any action on the part of the user to start their mayhem, which means they can spread very quickly. Worms have damaged the world’s computer networks in the past – and are still around.
- Trojans. “Trojans” are named after the famous wooden horse decoy in ancient Greece, because they pretend to be real, legitimate programs. They are designed to take control of your computer, and damage or steal data.
- Ransomware. The malware that has been in the news most frequently in recent years is ransomware, which prevents the user from accessing their data or device until they pay a ransom. It’s become a massive, global problem. In 2021, US software company Kaseya said a ransomware attack compromised hundreds of American businesses, with the hackers requesting $70 million in Bitcoin to release the compromised files.
- Spyware. Spyware, like the name suggests, is malware that observes and collects your activity and your data without your permission, and sends it back to whoever launched it.
- Adware. Advertising-supported software, or “adware” forces your computer to keep showing you advertisements, by redirecting your internet browsing, forcing apps you already have to display ads, or pretending to serve a different purpose.
How does malware get onto your computer?
Malware can get onto your computer in a myriad of ways, including, but not limited to:
- A free download, like a movie or a game
- A USB drive or external hard drive
- An attachment or link in a phishing email
- A scammy ad or pop-up
- An unsafe wifi connection
7 Tips for protecting your devices from malware
A few simple precautions can help prevent your devices from getting malware in the first place.
- Set up automatic updates on your security software, but also on your operating system and internet browser.
- Be very careful when you click on links. Never click on links sent by you from someone you don’t know, but be wary even of known senders (at this point, who hasn’t gotten random links on Facebook from a friend whose account has been hacked?) It’s always a safer bet to type in the URL in your search bar
- Be wary of little-known, free software. You may find a convenient website to help you convert a document into a pdf or trim an audio clip, but it could be downloading malware onto your computer
- Make it a practice to read every screen when you’re installing new software: if you’re getting asked to install a software bundle or a program you don’t recognize, stop the installation.
- Be extra careful when using external hard drives or thumb drives. Do not use ones from unknown sources, and after you use your own in a public computer, scan it for malware using your antivirus software.
How to tell if my computer has a virus?
Your computer may show a variety of symptoms if it’s infected by malware. Here are some of them:
- It has significantly slowed down within the span of several days, or it’s constantly freezing or crashing.
- It’s impossible to shut it down or restart it.
- New programs, apps, toolbars or icons that you did not install or add suddenly appear.
- You’re getting lots of pop-up ads (unless you have pop-ups enabled).
- Your web browser is constantly redirecting, changing the homepage.
- Your social media or email accounts are sending messages or posting on their own.
How to remove a virus from PC
If you think your computer is infected with malware, you need to act immediately. If you have security software installed, it’s always a good idea to call its manufacturer’s tech support, or the tech support for your PC (Dell, Microsoft, Lenovo). Verify that you’re calling the correct number – you don’t want to fall prey to a tech support scam while you’re trying to get rid of malware. Finally, follow Microsoft’s official guidance for removing viruses.
How to remove a virus from Mac
It is a myth that Macs can’t get infected with malware. But just like with PCs, there are steps you can take to get rid of malware on your own.
- Be safe. Before you do anything, consider disconnecting your computer from the internet, and rebooting your computer using Safe Mode.
- Make sure your operating system is up-to-date. Apple has in the past rolled out an update to its system specifically to deal with circulating malware. This is your first line of defense.
- Check your applications. Go through your “Applications” folder and delete any apps that you don’t recognize.
- Go through your programs. In the “Launchpad” menu find “Activity monitor.” You may be able to identify the suspicious program. Close it down by clicking the “x.” Find the program in your “Applications” folder, and delete it.
- Empty that trash! If you go through steps 2) or 3) make sure to empty out your trash folder.
- Make sure it’s not your browser extensions. Some browser extensions are so-called “browser hijackers,” which access and change your browser settings on their own. Go through all your extensions and delete any that you don’t recognize.
- Reset. You always have the option to reset your operating system, but remember that this will erase all your data.
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