The Various Forms of Malware & How to Avoid Them
Malware, an abbreviation for malicious software, comes in many different forms. From relatively harmless yet annoying adware or programs designed to disrupt computer usage for the sake of a practical joke to others which can steal your personal information or severely damage your computer, malware should be avoided in all of its forms. What many people do not realize, however, is that there are also many legitimate programs out there such as commercially available keyloggers and other computer surveillance software which, while not malware, can be used as such. Another important thing to remember is that defective software also does not fall into the category of malware. Nonetheless, there are legitimate programs which can pave the way for malware infestations due to having a serious security flaw. The Microsoft Windows operating system itself is certainly not immune from such flaws although, fortunately, Microsoft tends to hotfix such issues as soon as they are discovered. If you are curious about the various different forms of malware out there and endeavour to become more vigilant with regards to IT security, you should familiarize yourself with the following forms of malicious programming.
Viruses and Worms
When people think of malware, they usually think of viruses. A virus is actually only one form of malware and it is not even the most common. Computer viruses are named such because they are able to replicate themselves and attach themselves to other programs even if those programs are themselves legitimate. Viruses are primarily designed to disrupt IT systems whether in the name of a protest or prank. Computer viruses can be among the hardest malware to remove due to the fact that they can easily spread from computer to computer when programs containing them are executed. Virus infections range from the mildly annoying to the extremely harmful. The infamous CIH virus of the late nineties is a perfect example of the latter – it permanently damaged computer systems by overwriting a system’s BIOS meaning that motherboards on infected systems had to be replaced. Although computer viruses are not as prevalent as they used to be, thanks to better security software, there are many other forms of malware which are more widespread and even more harmful.
Computer worms also work similarly to viruses in that they replicate themselves and spread to other systems. However, unlike viruses, they do not attach themselves to other programs. While you certainly do not want a computer worm on your PC or network, they are generally not extremely harmful though they use extra bandwidth and can cause considerable disruption.
Trojan Horses and Keyloggers
Trojan horses are some of the most dangerous forms of malware and they are particularly common in spite of improving computer security software, particularly in more recent editions of Windows. A Trojan horse is a program consisting of two parts – a server and a client. The server runs on the hacker’s computer while the client runs on the victim’s computer. People can acquire the client on their computers in ignorance due to the fact that such software usually masquerades as a legitimate program.
Using the server component of the Trojan, the hacker will be able to log into the client on the victim’s computer and take control of it, at least to an extent. This can include watching the victim’s desktop, logging keystrokes to gather personal information or various other nefarious purposes. Legitimate remote access software and commercially-available keyloggers work in much the same way although they are not designed to be used for illegal purposes (although they sometimes are).
Fortunately, Trojans are normally fairly easy to avoid simply by being careful with what you download from the Internet. As any vigilant Internet user should know, downloading files from illegal or suspicious-looking sites should not be done. Likewise, torrent and file sharing sites are often packed full of malware.
Rogue Antivirus Software
One of the greatest security concerns in computing today is the growing presence of rogue security software. Such software comprises fraudulent programs which masquerade as legitimate antivirus programs. These programs are often notoriously difficult to remove and constantly bombard you with false information regarding your computer’s security status. They pretend to scan your computer for malware and then attempt to scare unwitting users into buying the program. Needless to say, buying the program achieves absolutely nothing and you’ll probably still have just as much difficulty trying to uninstall it anyway.
Fortunately, rogue antivirus software is usually quite easy to spot. There are only a handful of legitimate antivirus solutions out there but the rogue ones are often characterised by their exaggerated threats and aggressive attempts to blackmail you into paying up. If you find yourself in a situation where you have such suspicious software installed on your computer, a quick search on Google will no doubt reveal the truth. Some rogue antivirus programs are clones of other programs which can make them harder to spot. Rogue antivirus software is often obtained by clicking through popups or downloading software from suspicious sources.
Spyware and Adware
In terms of severity, spyware ranges from the mildly annoying to the extremely severe. The former includes software designed to track things like your Internet surfing habits, for example, while the latter may attempt to steal personal and financial information. Many programs and/or certain components belonging to them are incorrectly accused by some as being spyware. For example, many online video games install software designed to alert service providers of any cheats or hacks running on the computer. Other programs legitimately send anonymous usage details to their developers in order to help expose bugs and other flaws in the software. While technically having similar characteristics to spyware, they are not referred to as such due to the fact that they have legitimate purposes. When you agree to the terms and conditions of a program or service, it should tell you whether or not it monitors certain activities on your computer and, if it does, it should also tell you exactly what it does monitor.
Less harmful forms of spyware which still teeter on the border between being classified as malware and having legitimate uses are often those designed for the sole purpose of advertising and gathering Internet usage statistics for market research reasons. A good example is the now defunct Zango, an adware program which supported various free applications and games yet caused annoyance for many users. To put it as straightforwardly as possible, true spyware is a harmful form of malware and a program can be classified as spyware if it records information from your computer without your knowledge.
The above explains the most common forms of malware but one of the most important questions is how to remove it and how to avoid malware infections in the first place. Following are some tips for safer computer usage:
– Avoid downloading files and programs from unknown sources.
– Do not download email attachments from unknown senders.
– Do not download email attachments containing executable files (programs) unless you know the sender and are expecting to receive the files in question.
– Avoid downloading torrents unless they come from trusted and legitimate sources.
– Avoid downloading illegal software from other file sharing services.
– Always have antivirus software installed. For Windows, there is the free Microsoft Security Essentials while Windows 8 includes the built-in and updated Windows Defender.
– Always keep your antivirus software up to date.
– Perform a full scan of your computer, using your antivirus software, on a regular basis.
– Avoid websites containing pop-ups.
– Do not click on links in emails flagged as spam.
– Always have a firewall protecting your computer. Fortunately, Windows has one built in and activated by default.
Being vigilant online is essential if you want to ensure that you maintain a safe computing environment. It is not particularly difficult either – just make sure that you think before clicking on a link or downloading a program.