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Understanding Malware – What is it exactly?

With the growing threat of malware, there’s been a lot of talk about it in various outlets recently. Yet it seems like not many people are entirely aware of what exactly malware is (and isn’t), and how to stay protected against its different forms as optimally as possible. The truth is that malware confuses even the experts that work against it, but there is still a lot you can do as an average user to familiarize yourself with the modern trends and know what to avoid.

General overview

Malware is a general description for any malicious software, and includes a variety of subcategories, depending on the exact purpose of the tool. Here are some examples of malware:

Viruses – those have different purposes, but are mostly designed to cause damage to a system and replicate themselves to other systems as much as possible. Viruses may sometimes be harmless in that they cause no unpleasant effects (which can make them particularly difficult to detect), but in some cases they might bring your system to a near halt.

Trojan horses – a Trojan horse is a special kind of malware designed to give an attacker control over your system. This can work in different ways, but in most cases an attacker will be able to see the contents of your screen at any time they wish, as well as see a history of all your keystrokes and mouse movements, ideal for stealing your passwords and other credentials. Trojan horses are among the most popular types of malware nowadays due to their ability to compromise personal information.

Spyware – a different form of Trojan horses, spyware is designed to be more passive in nature. It collects information about the way you’re using your computer, what sites you’re visiting and so on, and sends it to the attackers who then collect and aggregate the data. From then on, they may use it directly against you, or sell it to third parties that can do with the information as they see fit.

Ransomware – a scary type of malware that gained popularity recently, ransomware is one of the most problematic topics in cybersecurity nowadays. Once malware of this type infects your computer, it locks down your system and demands payment to release it. In some cases, the lock may be harmless – a simple screen overlay that hides your applications but can be removed with a reinstall of your operating system. In other cases though, ransomware may go as far as to encrypt the contents of your hard drive, requiring a payment to release the encryption key. To make matters worse, the “offer” may be limited, destroying the key permanently if you choose not to pay.

What can I do to protect myself?

Protecting your computer from malware is not an easy task, and even some experts are confused by the many types of attacks they have to be wary of. As a general rule, be careful with the sites you visit and the files you download – never trust shady-looking sites, especially for downloading executable files.

But even if you’re as careful as possible, you may still be open to severe attacks. This makes it important to arm yourself with a good antivirus solution, a program that will keep your system in check and prevent intrusions from malicious parties. There are many solutions on the market for antivirus suites nowadays, each with their own strong sides and disadvantages, and you should take the time to carefully compare them all before stopping at any particular one.

Some people might tell you that you’d be wasting your money purchasing an antivirus suite, but the truth is that sooner or later you’re going to hit a point where it saves you, and you won’t regret making the investment. A good antivirus suite is something that will work quietly in the background and you may not even know it’s there most of the time, until that one critical moment strikes. It’s something you’ll be paying for on a long-term basis but will really only use once or twice – but consider that if you didn’t have it at those times, things could have gotten much worse, leaving you deprived of critical information and/or tools.

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