Malware or malicious software is any intrusive code or file that is distributed by cyber criminals over a network to steal the data of unsuspecting users. The malware silently gathers information about the device and the user’s personal credentials and forwards this information to hackers.
Criminals then use this information, such as bank details, login credentials, social security numbers, or credit card numbers, to commit identity theft or fraud.
Examples of malware attacks include ransomware, Trojan horses, adware, and spyware, and while each of these malware types infects and causes damage to systems differently, their core objective remains the same: stealing sensitive data and providing remote unauthorized access to hackers to control an infected device.
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What’s the purpose of malware?
The primary aim behind this huge surge in malware attacks is to extract information illegally and earn money.
Hackers use a mix of brute passwords, ransomware, spyware, etc., to exfiltrate data from users’ computers, destroy computer systems, hold PCs hostage, and sell personal and financial data on the dark web for a substantial profit.
How do malware attacks work?
Malware typically follows a similar pattern: a user unintentionally clicks on an infected file, which results in their machine getting infected. The majority of malware infections result when a user downloads a malicious program or clicks an infected email link.
Users are pressured into clicking by urgent messages, often suggesting a breach has already happened. For example, “Your account is compromised. Log in to check on recent changes,” or “Scan your computer now.”
They are often set up so that even if the user doesn’t choose the “Yes” option and instead clicks “No,” the result is the same. The malware payload is triggered.
Once activated, the malware performs its intended function. This may include:
- Replicating and spreading to other devices on the network.
- Installing programs that record keystrokes.
- Populating your desktop with pop-up ads.
- Restricting access to programs and files.
- Destroying computer systems and making them inaccessible.
Types of malware
Malware comes in many different shapes and sizes, which infiltrate your system in various ways and perform different functions on it. Some of the most prominent types of malware include ransomware, spyware, cryptojacking, rootkits, keyloggers, Trojan horses, botnets, polymorphic malware, and malvertising.
Ransomware is an extreme form of malware that takes over a victim’s device completely and locks it until the ransom money is paid. It has grown rapidly in prevalence due to its success at targeting businesses to extort a large sum of money. Types of ransomware include crypto ransomware, ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS), scareware, and doxware.
Spyware is any type of malware that installs itself on a user’s computer in order to gather confidential information and transmit it to third parties in exchange for money. As such, many of the kinds of malware listed here also qualify as spyware.
Cryptojacking, also called malicious crypto mining, is the process of using a victim’s computing resources to mine cryptocurrencies illegally. Through cryptojacking, hackers earn free money without investing in the overhead costs of hardware and energy expenses.
Rootkits attempt to secretly gain control of a computer system and maintain control over it for an extended period of time without its user knowing it’s there. This allows the rootkit’s controller to continue gathering data for purposes of sabotage, espionage, or commerce.
Keystroke loggers or keyloggers record every keystroke input on a computer in order to steal sensitive data like passwords and other authentication, as well as financial, personal, and other confidential information.
Trojan horse malware disguises itself as legitimate software. Once inside the network or installed, Trojan horses infect the device, note keystrokes, and send information about the machine to hackers. Although often referred to as “Trojan viruses,” they are not technically viruses. Unlike viruses that self-replicate, Trojan horses do not multiply.
Not technically malware themselves, botnets are “robot networks” of devices that have been infected with malware and are collectively under the control of a remote attacker, or “botmaster.” The botmaster uses these devices to execute attacks against other devices on the network. These attacks can be very difficult to trace, since they appear to come from another user’s computer.
Polymorphic malware is a type of malicious software that’s able to change its code structure on a regular basis. The alteration of code features changes the malware’s signature, which helps it to avoid detection by malware prevention tools.
Malvertising uses ads to spread malware. It is a form of malware attack where malware code is injected into legitimate websites to trick users into clicking on them.
Common malware attack targets
Cybercriminals use malware to target industries and organizations that are more likely to pay up. Malware attackers evaluate a potential target based on how much they can pay, the kind of data they hold, and how weak their cyber defenses are.
Key industries that are more likely to be targeted are education, banking and financial services, healthcare and government sectors, and manufacturing units.
Hackers typically look for companies that have the ability to pay large sums of money. The financial sector is a prime example. The healthcare and government sectors are similarly prone to malware attacks as they hold a lot of extremely sensitive and classified personal information.
The energy and utilities sector are also an attractive target for criminals as these provide critical services, which, if disrupted, can cause devastating consequences.
Although large companies can make lucrative victims, individuals and small businesses are typically much easier targets, as they often lack the security and defense systems in place at larger and wealthier organizations.
Ultimately, no one is safe from malware attacks. The best approach is to assume you are vulnerable and act accordingly.
How to protect yourself from malware
Investing in a tried-and-tested superior anti-malware solution remains the best way to prevent malware from attacking your systems. The best malware detection packages use advanced AI and machine learning (ML) techniques to identify and thwart malware dangers and protect you from dangerous malware.
Another way to protect yourself from malware is by not clicking or downloading suspicious files from unknown addresses. Other measures you can take to prevent malware from entering your network include:
- Patching and regularly updating all software and hardware.
- Enforcing multifactor authentication (MFA).
- Performing regular backups of data and storing them somewhere safe (i.e., disconnected from the network).
- Keeping yourself and your staff aware of social engineering techniques and phishing risks.
How to detect and remove Malware
Although malware is by nature difficult to detect, it does often come with some warning signs if you know what you’re looking for. Your computer could be malware infested if:
- It takes longer to start, commonly crashes, or freezes.
- Frequent pop-up ads appear on your screen.
- Your contacts receive unusual email or text messages from you.
- You notice a new icon or toolbar that you didn’t install.
- Your battery gets discharged faster than it should.
Malware removal steps
If you notice any of the above symptoms or otherwise suspect foul play, you should quickly take measures to remove any malware from your device. While malware removal can seem daunting, it’s usually not that difficult.
Here are some essential steps you should follow for malware removal:
- If you suspect a malware infection, quickly isolate your system. First, disable your internet connection to prevent the malware from establishing contact with the malware server.
- Log in to your computer using safe mode. This starts the computer in “diagnostic mode” instead of “operating mode.” It helps in troubleshooting better.
- Now turn on your activity monitor to check for malicious files that might have been uploaded to your device.
- Also, delete any temporary files. They might have been installed by malware.
- Run a malware scan to remove malicious programs. Delete all programs or apps that it identifies as malware.
- Restart your device again for the changes to take place.
- Since your personal data could have been compromised, make sure you change all your account passwords.
Malware Prevention Tools
While compliance with best practices can go a long way toward fostering a secure environment and keeping out unwanted intrusions, the most important thing you can do to protect your systems from malware is to install effective antivirus/anti-malware software.
The most important element to consider when choosing one is to ensure it is from an established, reputable organization—and download it directly from their website or your device’s app store. Never download unfamiliar software from a third party or a cursory Google search.
There are many powerful antivirus tools on the market, but here are some of our top picks.
Trend Micro Antivirus
Trend Micro antivirus solution uses advanced AI and ML technology to protect your devices against a multitude of malware and ransomware attacks. It includes a Folder Shield module that effectively stops 100% of ransomware threats.
Trend Micro has an easy interface and is available for both Mac and Windows, as well as Android and iOS.
- Real-time malware detection.
- Protects against a broad range of malware.
- Few false positives.
- Affordable pricing.
- Easy interface.
- Endpoint protection.
The basic, home solution is available in three tiers, priced at $19.95 for the first year for one device; $39.95 for three devices; and $49.95 for five devices, with additional services at the higher tiers.
There are also Worry-Free Services for small businesses starting at $79.28 for one year, and a plethora of advanced network security solutions for large enterprises.
McAfee Antivirus Software is a one-in-all solution that is equipped with ad blockers, network monitors, deep web search, and intrusion trackers to provide protection from various types of malwares. It has a user-friendly interface, ensuring people with even minimal knowledge of computers can use it.
McAfee antivirus is available for Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, and ChromeOS devices.
- Automated VPN turn-on for suspicious sites.
- Protection score to improve your online security.
- User-friendly interface.
- Advanced monitoring properties.
- Multi-platform compatibility.
- Parental controls.
Pricing starts at $39.99 per year for a single user with up to five devices, and scales up to a family plan for $119.99 per year with unlimited devices for two adults and four children.
Norton 360 is a powerful antivirus solution that uses ML and advanced heuristic virus detection techniques to flag suspicious files and provide you with the best protection possible.
Norton 360 is perfect for families since it includes in-built parental controls for a safe browsing experience, and for small businesses looking for affordable, comprehensive protection for all endpoints. It’s available for Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS.
- 50-100 GB cloud backup.
- Password manager.
- Secure VPN.
- Smart firewall.
- Dark web monitoring.
- Parental controls.
Norton 360 starts at $49.99 for the first year for five devices and 50GB cloud backup, and scales up to $299.98 for the first year for unlimited devices and 500GB cloud backup, as well as a variety of additional features and services, such as LifeLock identity theft protection and account monitoring.
Norton Small Business starts at $99.99 per year for five devices, $149.99 per year for 10 devices, or $249.99 per year for 20 devices.
Bottom line: Protecting against malware threats
Despite the increased awareness about malware and the great danger it poses, malware cases are on the rise. In fact, 2022 saw an increase of 2% in malware cases, with a greater concentration in the APAC and Latin American regions.
While it’s not possible to completely stop malware, using the right security plan and following safe web practices can help individuals and companies protect themselves from malicious software.
Read our complete guide to the best antivirus solutions for personal and enterprise security.