Cybersecurity is one of the hottest issues today in the digital world. As more people and more devices get connected to the internet, it has become easier for malicious entities to attack internet users. Malware, for example, is probably the most popular type of cyberattack that affects millions of devices around the world. What’s worse is that these attacks are no longer targeted towards computers, but mobile and IoT devices as well.
According to a study conducted by the University of Maryland, there is a hacker attack every 39 seconds and the average attack per day is 2,244. Security breaches jumped to 11% since 2018, and this rate is only getting higher every year. In fact, according to a new report released by the Anti-Phishing Working Group last year, malicious apps have infected at least 32.77% of the total number of computers around the world. We do not have the numbers for other infected devices, but you can just imagine how widespread the effect of the malware is.
There are different types of malware depending on what they were designed to do. Some malware simply monitors your activities and deliver personalized ads, while other malware can hijack your device and demand ransom. Most malware, however, work by stealing private and sensitive information from individuals and organizations.
The best way to minimize the chances of getting infected by malware is through awareness. Knowing what malware is and how it is distributed allows internet users to implement cybersecurity protocols to avoid infection. This guide will discuss extensively everything about malware — definition, types, distribution strategy, detection, removal, and prevention tips.
What is Malware?
Malware is the short term for malicious software. These are malicious programs designed to initiate unauthorized activity on the infected computer. Malware was created to steal data, damage devices, extort money, and generally cause a mess. Some of the common types of malware include Trojans, ransomware, adware, spyware, worms, and viruses. According to security website, Safe At Last, 350,000 malware versions are identified every single day, and a new malware strain is released every seven seconds.
Malware is generally intrusive, hostile, and downright nasty. They are designed by hackers to invade, damage, or disable the devices that they infect. Most of the time, the user doesn’t know that a malware has infected his or her device or network. They are good at hiding or camouflaging their activities to avoid detection and removal.
However, there are still some telltale signs that warn users when malware has invaded the system. For example, if you noticed your computer running very slow even when there are no programs open or when you see suspicious processes working in the background, there’s a high chance that your device is infected. We’ll discuss more about these malware symptoms in the section below.
Malware is everywhere. You can get by simply visiting an unsecure website or by downloading an app to your device. You can get it via email, games, ads, or even by instant messaging. If you aren’t vigilant enough, you might find your device suffering from the nasty effects of malware. Or worse, you could get your personal information stolen without you even knowing it.
Different Types of Malware and What They Do
There are thousands of malware that abound the digital space, and each of them work differently from the rest. Right now, there are at least nine major classifications of malware and each of them are structured uniquely. Knowing these malware classifications also helps a lot in understanding how they are spread and how they should be contained or removed. Let’s look at these categories one by one and what makes them different from the other malware types:
In the early days of the computer, when people refer to a virus, they actually mean malware. Regular end users who are not aware of the difference between the two terms refer to every malware program as viruses, which is the other way around. Viruses are just one category of malware and not all malware are viruses. A virus works by modifying other legitimate files so that the virus is executed when the file is opened or clicked.
Computer viruses are less popular today compared to several years ago. Viruses now comprise less than 10% of all known malware infection. This is good news because viruses are known to infect other files, which is how they spread easily. This also makes it particularly tricky to delete because the virus must be executed using the legitimate program. Most antivirus programs are struggling to remove them completely, but in most cases, the antivirus will just quarantine or delete the infected file instead.
Worms have been terrorizing the internet even longer than computer viruses — all the way back to prehistoric computer days. Email made them into a popular fashion in the late 90s, disguising as seemingly innocent message attachments. If one person opens a worm-infected email, the whole organization would also be infected in a short while.
What makes the worm unique is its self-replicating nature. The notorious Iloveyou worm, for example, affected nearly every email user across the globe, crashed phone systems with fraudulent text and brought down several television networks. Other infamous worms like SQL Slammer and MS Blaster cemented thereputation of worms in the history of cybersecurity.
A worm is so devastating because it has the ability to spread even without end-user action. Viruses need an action from the end-user to execute the file before it goes to infect others. Worms, on the other hand, exploit other files and programs to work for them.
Trojan horses are now the preferred weapon of choice for hackers. They’ve been around even longer than viruses, but they are still one of the most popular malware programs today because they continue to evolve. In fact, according to the research done by the Anti-Phishing Working Group, 71.85% of new malware strains and almost 80% of malware infections are Trojans.
Trojans are specifically designed to steal information. They disguise themselves as legitimate programs or hide within legitimate programs, but malicious instructions are packed within. A Trojan needs to be executed by the user to be able to do its work. They are often spread via email or when users visit infected websites. You’ve probably seen fake antivirus programs pop up and warn you that your computer is infected, then asks you to download a program to remove the malware — that’s Trojan. When users take the bait and click on the message, the Trojan is then downloaded to the user’s computer.
Trojans are difficult to deal with because of two reasons: they are easy to create and spread. If you search the dark web, you’ll even find malware creation tutorials or hacking tutorials for as low as $1. Trojans are also easy to distribute because all you need to do is trick users to download the infected installer.
Hackers pump out Trojans by the millions every month, but security vendors are finding it hard to keep up because of too many signatures. Luis Corrons, technical director of PandaLabs, said that a Trojan can infect 1000 computers in the old days. But now, you’ll see 1000 computers infected with 1000 different strains of Trojans. That’s how crazy this malware is.
Ransomware is among those types of malware that encrypt your data and take it as a hostage until the victim pays the ransom. This malware comprised a huge chunk of the total number of malware incidents for the past few years. And according to recent studies, this number will continue to grow as ransomware has become one of the most popular malware today. Ransomware has the power to cripple businesses, institutions, government agencies, and even entire cities.
Most ransomware programs are also Trojans. This means the malware needs to be spread and executed by the victim for it to work. Once executed, the ransomware searches and encrypts the files within the infected device. Some ransomware programs observe the user for a few hours before initializing the encryption routine so the hacker can figure out how much ransom the user can afford. The malware also takes advantage of this time to delete or encrypt other backups.
Just like other types of malware, ransomware can be prevented or avoided. But once the malware has been executed, it will be difficult to undo the damage without a reliable backup. Of the total number of ransomware victims, 25% of them choose to pay the ransom. However, a third of those who paid still do not get their files decrypted, making their ransom payment useless.
File-less malware is not actually a different category of malware. It is more of a description of how these malware entities exploit and persevere. Most traditional malware spreads and infects new systems through the file system. You download the malicious file, run it, and you get infected. File-less malware, on the other hand, does not need to directly use files or the file system to invade your system. Instead, they travel using other non-file OS components, such as registry keys, APIs, or scheduled tasks. What’s very worrying is that file-less malware today comprises more than 50% of all malware and growing.
Typical file-less attacks usually start by exploiting an existing legitimate process and becomes a newly-launched sub-process, or by taking advantage of existing tools built into the operating system, such as PowerShell or Command Prompt.This makes file-less attacks almost impossible to detect, stop, and remove.
One of the most common, and probably the most annoying type of malware is adware. This is not only common in computers, but in mobile phones and tablets as well. This malware attempts to display unwanted and potentially malicious ads to the compromised end-user. For example, adware can redirect your browser searches to fake, look-alike websites that host the product being promoted.
Malvertising is easily confused with adware, but these two categories of malware are different. Adware exposes the user to unsolicited ads, while malvertising uses legitimate ads or ad channels to secretly deliver malware to users’ computers. For example, a malicious entity might place a malicious ad on a legitimate website so that when it is clicked, the user is either redirected to a malicious website or a malware is installed on their computer. It is also possible that the malware embedded in the ad could run automatically without any interference from the user. This technique is also referred to as a drive-by download.
The goal of hackers who use malvertising is always money. Because of this, malvertising can be used to deliver any category of money-making malware, such as banking Trojans, ransomware, or cryptomining scripts.
Spyware is a type of malware often used by people who want to monitor other people’s online activities. When used in targeted attacks, cybercriminals can use spyware to steal passwords, gain access to sensitive information, or track someone’s internet activities.
Spyware programs, along with adware, are the malware types that are easiest to remove. This is because they are not nearly as malicious as other types of malware. You just need to find the executable file and stop it from being executed, then delete it from your system. The danger, however, lies in the mechanism exploited by the adware to infect your system. The presence of spyware usually means that there is unpatched software or other vulnerabilities that could be exploited by other more nefarious types of malware.
Most malware is actually a combination of traditional malicious programs, which makes them nastier. Hybrid malware often includes parts of Trojans, worms, or viruses. For example, a typical malware may appear to the end-user as a Trojan, but after execution, it suddenly attacks other users over the network like a worm.
How to Detect Malware
Some types of malware are easier to detect than others. For example, ransomware and adware are easily recognizable because they make their presence known immediately. A ransomware encrypts your files, while adware streams endless ads at you. Other categories, such as Trojans and spyware, deliberately hide away from you and your antivirus software as long as possible. This means that they could be wreaking havoc on your system for a long time before you realize that they are there. Viruses and worms, on the other hand, might operate secretly for a time, but the symptoms of their infection gradually start to appear, such as sluggishness, deleted or replaced files, freezing, sudden shutdowns, or suspicious background processes.
To help you determine whether your computer is infected or not, here are some of the common signsof malware infection that every user should be aware of:
- Your computer slows down even though there are no running programs and you have enough RAM and storage. This happens because malware is running in the background, consuming your resources and reducing your device’s speed and performance.
- You get a lot of annoying ads popping up on your screen that normally doesn’t happen. Closing the ads won’t make them go away because they just keep coming back. This is a sure sign that your system has been infected by adware.
- Your computer keeps crashing or freezing. Your apps also won’t run as smoothly as they should.
- Your computer’s available RAM starts to shrink. You can check how much RAM is being used by navigating to the control panel of your computer or through the settings menu of your mobile phone.
- Your device is acting weird. For example, your mobile phone might show as online to other people when it isn’t or your computer fans suddenly start working when they shouldn’t. When your device is not acting in the way that it normally does, then you probably have malware on it.
- Changes happen out of the blue. When you open your browser, you might notice that your homepage shows a different page or that your default browser has changed. Sometimes, even your toolbar looks different or there are some new extensions that you don’t remember installing.
- Your antivirus has been disabled without you knowing it. This is most definitely the work of malware. They target the security software installed on the device to prevent detection. So if you no longer get that notification once a day from your security software, check whether it has been turned off.
- Another obvious sign is when someone reaches out to you to tell you that your computer has a virus. In ransomware cases, the hackers contact the victim directly asking them to pay up.
Different malware types have different symptoms. The best way to protect your system against malware infection is by being aware of these telltale signs. Once you detect something weird on your device, you can take the appropriate actions to get rid of the malware. The earlier you detect the malware, the lesser the damage will be to your device or personal data.
How to Completely Remove Malware
Generally, getting rid of malware is easy as long as you find out about it early on. If you suspect that your device or computer has been infected, there are a few steps you can take to control the situation.
The best way to detect and delete malware is by using a reliable anti-malware software. There are a lot of options out there, but make sure to go with a security solution that is able to deal with your infection. Some security software focuses on viruses alone, but there are those that offer a comprehensive protection against several types of malware. Once you have found the perfect security software, follow the steps below to completely get rid of malware on your computer:
Step 1: Boot into Safe Mode.
- Turn off your computer, then turn it back on again.
- Press F8 repeatedly before the operating system loads. This should bring up the Advanced Boot Options window.
- Choose Safe Mode with Networking, then hit Enter. Make sure that your computer is disconnected from the internet when you do this.
Step 2: Remove Temporary Files.
Removing temporary files while you are in Safe Mode makes the scan a lot faster and easier. To delete your temporary files:
- Click the Start menu > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Cleanup. Or you can search for Disk Cleanup using the search bar to access the utility directly.
- In the Disk Cleanup window, scroll through the Files to Delete section, then tick off Temporary Files.
- Click Delete.
Step 3: Run a Scan.
- Launch your antivirus or anti-malware software.
- Do a deep scan of all your directories to make sure nothing gets aways.
- Wait for the scan to be completed.
- The antivirus or anti-malware should automatically delete any malicious app or files detected. If not, delete them manually.
Step 4: Delete Junk Files and Cached Data.
After deleting the infected files, make sure that there are no leftover files associated with the virus or malware. You can use a PC cleaning app such as Outbyte PC Repair to delete these unnecessary files from your computer. Once everything has been cleaned up, you can reboot in regular mode.
Malware on Mac
Most users think that Macs don’t get viruses or malware. This is not true. Macs are also being targeted by malicious malware, though the amount of attacks on macOS is relatively lower than those targeting PCs.
By design, Macs are more secure than PC computers for two reasons: Macs are less popular than PCs and the macOS is more secure against the threat of malware. However, to think that macOS is invincible is a huge mistake. Just like any other operating system, macOS is also vulnerable to viruses and malware. Plus, there is no shortage of hackers also targeting Macs.
For example, the CoinTicker app used by people who are invested in cryptocurrency has been caught installing different backdoors on macOS devices. Some apps in the Mac App Store were also detected to be stealing the user’s data. Adware Doctor, an app that is supposed to detect adware, has been found to be exfiltrating the device’s browser history (Safari, Chrome, Firefox), as well as a list of all running processes and software downloaded. Other malicious apps include Dr. Cleaner, Dr. Antivirus, RAR Support, and other.
In short, the idea of Mac’s invulnerability is all but a myth. macOS is just as vulnerable as other computers, so taking your online security for granted can get you into trouble.
How to Defend Against Malware
Getting your computer infected with malware can be very dangerous. Aside from causing performance problems for your computer, malware can steal your data and even hold it hostage to get money from you. No matter what type, malware is equivalent to bad news. You can always use the above steps to detect and get rid of malware, but why wait for your device to get infected?
The best way to protect your system against malware is awareness. Knowing how they are spread and paying extra caution to what you do online can help a lot in avoiding this plague. Here are some other tips to keep malware at bay and protect your computer:
1. Install a robust antivirus solution.
Keep your security software always updated so that no new virus or malware strain can get past its protection.
2. Be wary when opening email attachments.
Make it a habit to scan email attachments before you click on them. Some email services are equipped with built-in scanners, but if there isn’t any, use your own security software to do the scan. Some attachments that are presented as text files might be malware in disguise. In fact, it can be a macro virus that disguises as Microsoft Word or Excel file. So even if the email comes from people you know, don’t randomly click email attachments without scanning them first.
3. Keep your operating system updated.
Current threats mostly exploit security vulnerabilities, so make sure to install all available updates to keep your system protected. On Windows, click Start > Settings > Update & Security > Windows Update, then click Check for updates to see if there are any.
4. Always scan USB and external drives before use.
Your antivirus software should automatically scan a new USB or external hard drive once they are connected. If not, run the scan manually. Once you find malware, make sure that all infected files are deleted first before opening the drive. Don’t forget to write-protect the drive to prevent tampering.
5. Install only original apps and software.
Download the software that you need from legitimate sources only. If you’re using Windows, you can go to the Microsoft Store to download the app that you want. For Macs, you can visit the Mac App Store. If you can’t get the software that you’re looking for from these legitimate sources, you can visit the app developer’s website and download the installer package from there. Don’t ever download from third-party app repositories.
Perform a scan regularly. You can set your antivirus to run a scan on a regular schedule, like monthly or weekly. If there is a new program installed on your system, run a scan as well to make sure that there are no additional apps being downloaded or no suspicious process running in the background.
6. Be careful when sharing folders.
Some types of malware can attack other users on the same network through shared folders. If you want to share a file or information from your computer, make sure not to give full control permissions unless necessary. Moreover, don’t share large directories. Instead, try to share specific folders only.
7. Don’t open files received via messenger apps without checking.
With the popularity of messaging apps nowadays, it has become easier for cybercriminals to distribute the infected files via messages. If you receive a message attachment, try to ask the sender first to check if the file was really sent by him or her. Most worms have the capability to send themselves to other contacts even without the knowledge of the user.
8. Back Up Your Files.
Most antivirus solutions can recover the infected or damaged file from your computer, but these are not 100% effective. There are times when the damage is too extensive, making it impossible to restore the file. For this reason, it is crucial to create a backup of all your important files on a regular basis.
Malware can cause varying degrees of damage, depending on the type of malware and the intention of the attacker. It can range from simple spying to getting bombarded by ads to getting your data stolen. Regardless of the type of malware that invaded your computer, it is crucial to get rid of it as soon as possible and take precautionary steps to prevent future instances. When it comes to malware, prevention is always better than cure.