You know how every year the medical community campaigns for everyone to get a flu shot? That’s because flu outbreaks typically have a season—a time of year when they start spreading and infecting people.
In contrast, there are no predictable seasonal infections for PCs, smartphones, tablets, and enterprise networks. For them, it’s always flu season. But instead of suffering chills and body aches, users can fall ill from a kind of machine malady—malware.
Malware infections come at us like a torrent of water from a fire hose, each with its own methods of attack—from stealthy and sneaky to subtle like a sledgehammer. But if knowledge is power, as a preventative inoculation against infection, we offer here a short course on malware, what it is, its symptoms, how you get it, how to deal with it, and how to avoid it in the future.
Malware (a portmanteau for malicious software) is any software intentionally designed to cause damage to a computer, server, client, or computer network (by contrast, software that causes unintentional harm due to some deficiency is typically described as a software bug).
Malware, or “malicious software,” is an umbrella term that describes any malicious program or code that is harmful to systems.
Hostile, intrusive, and intentionally nasty, malware seeks to invade, damage, or disable computers, computer systems, networks, tablets, and mobile devices, often by taking partial control over a device’s operations. Like the human flu, it interferes with normal functioning.
Malware is all about making money off you illicitly. Although malware cannot damage the physical hardware of systems or network equipment (with one known exception—see the Google Android section below), it can steal, encrypt, or delete your data, alter or hijack core computer functions, and spy on your computer activity without your knowledge or permission.
Malware can reveal itself with many different aberrant behaviors. Here are a few telltale signs that you have malware on your system:
Your computer slows down. One of malware’s main effects is to reduce the speed of your operating system, whether you’re navigating the Internet or just using your local applications.
A tidal wave of annoying ads that shouldn’t be there washes over your screen. Unexpected pop-up ads are a typical sign of a malware infection.
They’re especially associated with a form of malware known as adware. What’s more, pop-ups usually come packaged with other hidden malware threats. So if you see something akin to “CONGRATULATIONS, YOU’VE WON A FREE PSYCHIC READING!” in a pop-up, don’t click on it. Whatever free prize the ad promises, it will cost you plenty.
Your system repeatedly crashes, freezes, or displays a BSOD (Blue Screen of Death), which can occur on Windows systems after encountering a fatal error.
You notice a mysterious loss of disk space, probably due to a bloated malware squatter which hides in your hard drive.
There’s a weird increase in your system’s Internet activity.
Usage of your system resources is abnormally high and your computer’s fan starts whirling away at full speed—signs of malware activity taking up system resources in the background.
Your browser’s homepage changes without your permission. Similarly, links you click send you to an unwanted web destination. This usually means you clicked on that “congratulations” pop-up, which downloaded some unwanted software. Likewise, your browser might slow to a crawl.
New toolbars, extensions, or plugins unexpectedly populate your browser.
Your antivirus product stops working and you cannot update it, leaving you unprotected against the sneaky malware that disabled it.
Then there’s the painfully obvious, intentionally non-stealthy malware attack. This famously happens with ransomware, which announces itself, tells you it has your data, and demands a ransom to return your files.
Even if everything seems to be working just fine on your system, don’t get complacent, because no news isn’t necessarily good news.
Powerful malware can hide deep in your computer, going about its dirty business without raising any red flags as it snags your passwords, steals sensitive files, or uses your PC to spread to other computers.