Malware (short for “malicious software”) is a general term encompassing various ill-intentioned software programs including Spyware, Adware, and Viruses.
Malware programs are installed without the user’s knowledge or consent. Often this occurs when the user installs or runs another program which has hidden malware bundled with it… free “shareware” program downloads are a frequent source of infection. Malware is commonly spread through the use of file sharing programs including Limewire, Kazaa, Morpheus, P2P and other peer-to-peer programs, as well as through BitTorrent sharing; when users download software, music, or movies from unknown sources through file sharing programs, a virus, spyware, or adware program may be received as well. Malware infections can result in slow, bogged-down computer processing speeds, hard drive data corruption, and (even worse) financial and personal data theft.
Spyware programs are a specific type of malware which collect information about the way a person uses the computer and delivers the information secretly to another person’s computer via the internet. Spyware programs can track web sites visited, usernames and passwords entered, and can even log all keystrokes entered including credit card and account numbers; this information is then used for profit-driven purposes by the receiver. Spyware programs may have very little impact on computer performance, allowing the spyware to run unnoticed.
Adware programs force pop-up advertising windows to appear in a web browser. Adware programs may be bundled with other software provided for free and may work along with spyware programs to display ads targeted to the user’s interests as determined from internet usage patterns. Adware programs often target users of the Internet Explorer browser, as it is used by a large portion of the internet population and is frequently found to contain vulnerabilities in its programming which can be exploited. Adware often has a noticeable negative impact on computer speed and performance.
Virus programs can secretly cause a computer to do a scammer’s work for him, including sending out spam emails or even “hijacking” a computer entirely and using all of the computer’s resources for nefarious deeds. Viruses can result in data corruption and loss as well as extreme reductions in processing performance.
When it comes to malware, preventing an infection is easier than detecting and curing one. Following are some basic safeguards you can practice to help protect against a malware infection.
- Use a Firewall – Windows and Mac computers have a built-in software firewall under the Control Panel or System Preferences; make sure it is turned on. Many modems and routers also include a firewall feature. Configure your firewall(s) to offer the highest level of protection while still allowing your activities (email, instant messaging, etc.) to function. Firewalls can prevent malware from transmitting your sensitive information.
- Install OS and browser updates – Keep your computer’s Operating System and web browser updated with the latest available versions. Updates usually include security patches to prevent the kinds of unauthorized access that malware utilizes to do its dirty work. Only download updates from reputable sources.
- Beware of risky downloads - Avoid peer-to-peer type file sharing programs and make sure your children and teens do as well. Music or movie files shared from unknown sources are common vehicles for distribution of hidden malware. Only download software or media files from well-known trusted online sources.
- Beware of email attachments – Be suspicious of any executable programs (with filenames ending in “.exe”) which may come attached to emails, even if they come from someone you know… these can spread malware, so if in doubt, don’t open the attachment and simply delete the email.
- Choose your browser wisely – As Internet Explorer is used by a large portion of the internet population and is occasionally found to have security vulnerabilities, it is the most common target for malware attacks. Other browsers may be a safer alternative, like Mozilla’s free FireFox or Apple’s free Safari (both are available in both Windows and Mac versions).
- Use anti-virus software – A good anti-virus program can prevent virus infection as well as detecting and curing some virus problems. While some free shareware virus programs are available online, it is best to purchase a good anti-virus program from a reputable company like McAfee, Norton, or AVG. Also be sure to update your anti-virus software regularly with the latest virus definitions to prevent against the latest virus attacks.
- Use anti-malware software – Software to detect and remove spyware and adware is also available from well-known providers including McAfee and Norton. If you use Microsoft Windows, they also offer their own program called Windows Defender which you may consider.