Malware and viruses are often confused as being the same thing, but they aren’t. Both words are enough to make any computer user nervous, and both are something you hope to never have on your device.
But what are the critical differences between malware and viruses? What are the main types of malware attacks, and how do you protect yourself from them? In this guide, we cover everything you need to know about these threats.
What is Malware?
Malware is an umbrella term used for all types of malicious software. This software is created by cybercriminals or hackers that have malicious intent – hence the name malware. There are many different types of malware, but they all have the same goal, to steal information, usually for financial gain. There is money in data, and so if a hacker steals the data of hundreds or even thousands of computer users, they could be sat on a goldmine.
The most common types of malware include adware, spyware, ransomware, and trojans, but there are many others. As more of us head online and cybercriminals become smarter, new programs and threats are frequently appearing. We will cover the different types of malware in more detail, but for now, let’s look at the term virus and what that means.
What is a Computer Virus?
Computer viruses are a specific type of malware or malicious software. A virus is just one of the many things infecting computers and software, but it also tends to be one of the worst. Viruses can evade detection, and many users are completely unaware that they even have one, whereas another type of malware may be easier to spot.
So although the two are commonly confused, there is a clear difference between malware and viruses. The term malware is a collective term for several different threats, and the term virus is a specific type of malware. So now that we’ve cleared up the difference between malware and a virus let’s look at computer viruses and other types of malicious software.
Other Types of Malware
There are many different types of malware on the web, probably too many to mention, and some the world doesn’t even know about yet. Hackers are constantly developing their code and finding new ways to outsmart anti-malware tools. Here are just some of the most common types of malware:
Adware is a type of malware designed to spam your device with unwanted advertisements. We’re not talking about useful adverts based on your browsing history that you might click on. We mean spammy adverts that you will want to avoid at all costs. The main aim of adware is to generate revenue in the most invasive way possible.
Scareware will tell you that your device is infected, even when it isn’t. Pop-ups will say that your personal data is at risk and that you should download software to resolve the issue. Unfortunately, the download is usually always an infected program which will cause more problems. Some types of scareware aren’t infected programs but warnings designed to dupe you into purchasing the software you don’t need.
Ransomware is one of the worst types of malware. A ransomware attack can leave you feeling threatened and blackmailed while also leaving you out of pocket. It locks down your computer systems, software, and files and will only release them if you pay. Thus, you are essentially held for ransom to get back into your computer system.
Spyware is a relatively simple type of malware. It’s less advanced and easier to code than other threats, meaning that there is a lot more of it. Spyware will do precisely that – spy on you. It will track your keyboard and keystrokes, getting everything it needs to steal your data. This includes credit card information and other sensitive information.
A trojan, or trojan horse, is an enemy in plain sight. It’s software that is seemingly harmless, even marketed as helpful. It’s malicious programs that hide their true intent. Unfortunately, you usually only find out you have been infected by a trojan when it’s too late. Trojan horses can do almost anything, from stealing your data to crashing your computer. Banking trojans are some of the most common and are used to commit fraud.
Worms are standalone software that is mainly passed on through network or system vulnerabilities. A worm self replicates over and over again, making them difficult to get rid of completely. They are also quite challenging to detect and can silently invade your files, information, and network.
Fileless malware attacks are stealthy, as nothing is initially installed onto your machine. Instead, this type of malware is a code that changes your system configuration that looks legitimate. Unfortunately, it’s also challenging for antivirus software to detect and cause a user some real problems.
How Do I Know that I Have Malware?
Many types of malware can avoid detection, so a lot of the time, you might not even know you’re infected. Here are some tell-tale signs to look out for:
- Your system running slower than usual, taking longer to open files or specific software
- Strange pop-ups that you haven’t seen before appear on your screen
- Software or files installed on your system that you didn’t know about or notice before
- Anything new or abnormal on your device can be a sign of a virus or malware
The best way to truly know whether or not you have been infected is to use an anti-malware or antivirus program that can complete a scan of your device and detect any potential threats. The key is to try your best to avoid the spread of malware, so keep reading to find out how to do that.
Can I Get Malware on Other Devices?
Yes, the threat virus or other malware goes far beyond just your Windows computer or Mac. You can also download or contract malware on your mobile device, including Android phones and iPhones. The symptoms of an infection and the impact on the hardware is quite similar as above, so you might notice your phone running slower than usual or apps freezing and closing down.
A complete reset of your device is often the only way to eradicate a virus from your phone. The good news is that preventing malware is quite simple on any device. We cover some essential tips below.
Ways to Prevent Malware
The good news is that there are many ways to avoid malware and virus attacks on your device. Few of us fall for scam emails or random attachments, but as we get smarter, so do the hackers. That means that no matter how advanced a computer user you are, you could still fall victim to threats like spyware, viruses, and other types of malware. Here are some ways to prevent it from happening.
Use a VPN
A VPN is a must-have for internet users. They protect you from infected websites and malicious code that can be a massive threat to your computer. VPNs also work on mobile devices, and although they can’t run system checks or remove existing infected files from your computer, they can protect you from getting any more.
With a good VPN, you will have the highest level of encryption that makes you undetectable. This way, you never have to worry about your personal information being compromised. Don’t worry if you have never used one before; plenty of VPNs are designed for beginners.
Antivirus software you need if you suspect that you may have viruses or malware on your computer. These anti-malware tools are designed to be a preventative measure, meaning that they protect you from malware threats as and when it happens. However, if you haven’t had antivirus installed or something slipped through the net, a system scan will quickly eradicate any issues.
Antivirus solutions don’t protect you from just viruses, but other threats and malware too, like worms, trojans, and adware. You can run ad-hoc scans or create a schedule so that the antivirus regularly checks your device.
Be More Vigilant
There are some things that you can do to stay safer online. Firstly, never open email attachments from somebody you don’t know. Even if you know the sender, make sure that it’s a legitimate email before downloading any files. Attachments are one of the most common ways that online viruses spread to computers.
It’s not just emails, either. The websites you visit can contain and spread malware. If you land on an unexpected site or are redirected somewhere you don’t recognize, we advise closing it down immediately and running an antivirus scan.
Remember to keep your operating system and browser software up to date. Vulnerabilities in old software are breeding grounds for viruses, and that’s why updates are so frequent. Ensuring you have the latest version of OS and browser can significantly reduce your chances of being infected with malware.
Limit Your Downloads
Torrents are notorious for containing malware, usually a virus. Therefore, you have to be particularly careful when file-sharing or downloading anything from a torrent or other user. Having antivirus installed will reduce your risk of threats, but you should always be conscious of what you are downloading and whether or not it could have a virus.
Back up your files
Although file backups won’t stop computers from getting a virus, or the spread of any other type of malware, it’s insurance if the worst happens. A particularly nasty virus could completely wipe out your system, meaning you lose everything. So if you use your computer for work or hold any critical or sensitive information, you must keep a backup.
Hi, I'm Cliff. I'm based in Cleveland, Ohio, with my wife and two kids.
I have a keen interest in cybersecurity and have been writing about it for around a decade now. Due to my background in computer science, I am familiar ...
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