How You Can Protect Your Computer from Malware
“It’s a virus” you squeal, staring wide-eyed at a blinking computer, unaware that it could be any type of malware that’s causing the trouble.
Malware is an umbrella term describing every piece of malicious software on the web. We’re talking everything from ‘spyware,’ to, ‘bots,’ ‘trojans’, ‘ransomware’, ‘worms’, and more.
We make more transactions and swap more personal information online than ever before. It’s now possible to order a taxi, rent a holiday home, or file your taxes all from the comfort of your PC or cellphone. The catch? These web sessions provide ample opportunity for hackers to deliver malware.
Understanding malware is the only way to defend yourself against it. In this article, we’ll examine the different threats out there and how to keep them at bay.
The Dark Side of the Web
Hackers design malware for sinister purposes, from data theft to all-out extortion. If your PC gets infected with malware, the consequences can range from a small inconvenience to a significant loss of data, and a considerable expense to you.
This type of software has far-reaching capabilities. For example, if a virus allows a hacker to take over an email account, they’ve got the ability to reset the passwords of any linked accounts — including online banking and social media accounts. Hackers even use social engineering and ‘phishing’ to fool people into handing over their login credentials.
Types of Malware
The first line of defense is knowing the kinds of malware you’re up against. Here’s a quick rundown:
- Virus – designed to cause harm to the computer or systems. Once it’s taken hold, a virus can do many unpleasant things. Viruses delete files, change system configurations, hack emails, and far worse. Like a true parasite, it can even slow your computer down while infecting others. The types of viruses that hack email accounts often spread via email, infecting everyone in a person’s contact list.
- Adware – software that displays or downloads unwanted advertising when a user is online. This usually comes in the form of banners or pop-up ads, or it redirects your browser to a specific website. While adware won’t cause direct harm, it can be pretty annoying and in worst cases can contain spyware as well.
- Spyware – as the name suggests, spyware monitors, or spies, on your computer. Once spyware has taken hold, it looks at everything you do. Hackers have access to your browsing activity, private emails, data, and more.
- Ransomware – locks users out of their devices or prevent access to their files. To release the files, you have to pay a ransom. Hackers use social engineering tricks to deliver ransomware, often by tricking people with well-designed phishing emails or an infected website. When a victim falls for one of these traps, the ransomware installs itself on their computer.
- Scareware – uses social engineering to trick into victims into downloading dangerous software. The scary elements are the fear tactics employed. Scareware authors mislead users into thinking their computer has a virus. By claiming that your computer has a malware problem. You are then tricked into paying for the software to fix it—and serve yourself with malware.
Possible Signs of Malware Infection
The tricky thing about malware is that its presence isn’t always noticeable. Many people have no idea they use malware-corrupted phones, tablets, or computers. Fortunately, there are some telltale signs:
- Malware reveals itself by making slight changes to the way your computer behaves. Watch out for any irrelevant ads or pop-up windows. Pay special attention to pop-up ads that load straight after a web page has finished loading. These ads contain anything from free plays in a casino, link to a game, or any other inappropriate content. The most intrusive ads display flashing colors or high pitched noise. Others are challenging to close and block the content you’re trying to view.
- You might notice that your computer is running slower. At the same time, you may experience a sudden lack of storage space.
- Have there been any changes in your web browser’s behavior? Malware browser hijacking can be quite apparent. Has your homepage or default search engine changed?
Now we’ve clarified what malware is, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. How does it find itself onto a private computer?
How does a Computer get Infected with Malware?
Malware is usually installed after you have taken some ‘missteps.’ Attackers are looking for opportunities to trick you into installing their malware. This is why malware has many faces.
Let’s take a look at the most common bad online habits that lead to malware finding its way to your computer.
- Downloading from a web page – The most common way to get malware is by downloading files from untrusted sites or unknown sources. To be sure you aren’t another unlucky victim, make sure you have the latest version of your web browser. Furthermore, all major browsers have a built-in alert system when you’re about to download from a web page to your computer to make sure that was your intended behavior.
And it might go without saying, but be sure to only download files from websites you know and trust.
- Using streaming and file-sharing services – File-sharing through peer-to-peer networks and using software from third-party websites can come with a sting in its tail. P2P file sharing lets users download and share media with each other across the web for free, but there’s a snag. Files tend to travel across many computers. It takes one user with malware to infect everyone else downloading their files.
- Browsing illegal sites – Many people use illegal websites to access paid content for free. It’s become second nature to watch pay-per-view sports games through a VPN or stream the latest blockbuster movie—while it’s at the cinema. But beware—often these services cause more harm than good.
Remember that old adage, if it seems too good to be true? If you visit an illegitimate site, malware can install itself automatically. Such sites often come loaded with malware-heavy pop-ups and other stingers. Ever clicked the ‘Play button’ and another browser tab opens? That’s a possible sign of unwanted activity.
In the long-run, you’ll save time and money by avoiding these sites and services completely. Instead, make sure to only download or stream software from the official vendor’s website.
- Clicking on pop-ups warning “your computer is infected” – Out of the blue, a pop-up appears on your screen. It may explain in bold font that your computer has malware and needs a security update. The prophecy becomes real once you click there. These warning messages often contain a link to some solution-based software to “clean up” the malware, which instead it will add to your system. In the case of web page links, the page might even display pop-ups to warn you to disable your anti-virus software. Others suggest you ignore any warnings from your operating system and continue.
Avoiding scareware is easy—don’t fall for bogus claims.
- Falling for Social Engineering Scams – The key to the success of malware is something called ‘social engineering.’ Social engineering harnesses elements of human social psychology.
Side-stepping any hacking techniques, criminals instead focus on tricking people into voluntarily giving access to their data. Someone using this technique might claim to be from your bank or an IT support technician. They might try tricking people into divulging a password over the phone or via an IM from a fake address.
Companies will never send you unsolicited emails asking for your login or your password. Using your common sense is one of the simplest ways to avoid falling for their traps. There’s even help for that by installing one of the many free anti-phishing toolbars available.
- Clicking on suspicious email attachments – Malware authors use tricks to convince people to download and install viruses or click on malicious links. They deliver their malware via email. Disguised as something we want, or are familiar with.
Spoofed emails may appear to be a friend or any other reputable source such as a bank or a popular online store. In this disguised delivery system, you might open an email from a popular website with an attachment claiming to be a discount coupon or free PDF. Convincing wording and familiar graphics entice you to open it. It takes one click to automate a download, and bam, you’ve got malware. This ploy is called email spoofing.
To side-step these scams, never click on anything or download attachments unless you are absolutely sure you know who sent it.
- Opening infected removable media – Viruses can spread by infecting removable drives such as USB flash drives, or any type of external storage such as your Kindle or external hard drive. Malware has even reared its head in airport USB charging stations, of all places.
It just takes one time to connect your Kindle to the USB port on an infected computer, and you’ll come away with a virus, as well as a full battery. Then, the next time you charge it up at home, you’ve just spread the malware to your own computer.
While this sounds like pretty nasty stuff, this is why Internet security programs exist. Good internet security software detects and protects against these types of threats. To avoid this type of infection, run a security scan on all your removable drives.
- Not using antivirus software – You might be aware of the tactics described above. Like many (probably infected) users, you believe you can outsmart malware. Many people assume that malware, like all other software, must be ‘installed’ by the user, or it asks permission before it installs itself. The problem is, most malware delivers itself silently by exploiting vulnerabilities in software. What’s more, many Mac and iOS users think they are safe because they believe Apple devices aren’t targeted. This is simply not true. What does that tell us?
Anti-virus software is must-have protection, for everyone
- Assuming your antivirus provides 100% protection – You might be on the right track having installed anti-virus software, and you’re even keeping it up-to-date. That’s just the start. Anti-virus software, even the most current programs, can miss new types of malware attacks. There are tens of thousands of new malware variants released into cyberspace every month. That’s why it’s crucial to not only protect your computer with anti-virus software but take care to avoid all of the traps mentioned above.
Lock Your Computer Down with Anti-malware Software
The simplest way to stay out of the malware woods is with anti-virus software, and if necessary, a malware removal tool. The biggest names in Malware removal include Malwarebytes Anti-Malware software and Bitdefender Antivirus.
For an overview of what’s hot in malware removal right now, head to Techradar. Their yearly malware remover software review is a solid roundup of the best free software available. Several brands include an option to upgrade to a premium version. Paid versions include some extra features to you safe and more opportunities for customization.
To learn more about anti-virus software, we recommended Consumer Reports. They deliver a comprehensive, impartial (and up-to-date) overview of the best antivirus software available.
Steps to Protect Your Business from Malware
Malware doesn’t mind if you’re using the net for business or casually browsing the web at home. Anyone online can be the victim of a malware attack. Most are not targeted. They attract unsuspecting internet users by hovering around until someone takes the bait. To prevent malware infecting your devices, consider the following preventive measures:
- Backup files frequently – Do it often (every day). This way, if anything goes wrong, you can just store the backed up files to a recent version of your files, website, or content management system. This is a piece of cake to do and a life-saver if things go wrong.
- Use security software – Reputable anti-virus and anti-malware software working together act as safeguards against online threats.
- Keep all software up-to-date – Out-of-date anti-virus software is a waste of time. In fact, it’s almost as bad as having no anti-virus software at all. You can configure anti-virus software to check for updates automatically. Activate this, and you’ve got one less job on your hands.
- Practice good password hygiene – Keep your accounts out of the wrong hands by making it harder to penetrate them. Where accounts offer multi-factor authentication, be sure to use it. All online banks, and most reputable software solutions providers like Gmail and WordPress.com, offer this free service, as of course, we do at Namecheap
- Educate employees on ransomware and how it works – Anyone else with access to your files needs to be aware of ransomware. A five-minute chat on detecting suspicious emails and attachments can save you a lot of trouble further down the line.
Protect your Website from Malware Attacks
Websites aren’t safe from malware attacks.
To save yourself the headache of a hacked website there are some simple things you can do. Review the following points to prevent the worst from happening:
- Security experts recommend running a daily security audit and perform a regular malware scan. All good security software provides the options to automate these tasks, so you don’t have to remember to do it.
- Just like your computer software, it’s essential your website applications and scripts are up-to-date. When you get an update notification, act on it swiftly.
- Delete user accounts that you are no longer in use that can log in to your website admin. Extra accounts floating around can cause all sorts of security vulnerabilities that you don’t want.
- For extra security, enable SSL on your websites. SSL is like an Internet forcefield that protects people from eavesdropping on browsing sessions. Many site users aren’t aware of the risks of logging in to your site remotely. Hackers can infiltrate insecure networks, especially free and public WIFI connections easily. Namecheap provides SSL certificate solutions to prevent your logins from being intercepted this way.
The Internet has made it easier for all sorts of legitimate pursuits. It’s also made life easier for con artists and scammers to carry out their virtual crimes. As we’ve seen, keeping safe online takes more than just installing a few security programs. To protect both yourself, and your computer, tend to all the points mentioned on this page.
Good luck taking on those hackers. And while you’re at it, have you considered setting up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) for your computer? Namecheap offers a great VPN option to prevent people from snooping on your online activities.