What is Malware? (and how to prevent and get rid of it)

Malware logo Crystal 128.
Malware logo Crystal 128. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you ever get suspicious that your PC has been infected? Particularly if your applications start falling over or slowing down?

I do.

I start getting worried but then convince myself I’m being paranoid – there are loads of reasons why apps fall over or run slower, and my firewall and antivirus software would have stopped anything suspect, right?

Finally, last week, prompted by an article by Jack Wallen for TechRepublic, I looked into what Malware is and whether I needed to do anything extra to protect my PC. This is particularly important coming up to the silly season as I plan to do as much of my Xmas shopping online as humanly possible. Taking two toddlers anywhere is difficult at the best of times, I can’t even contemplate Xmas shopping with them..

So, what is Malware?

According to Wikipedia Malware is

software used or created to disrupt computer operation, gather sensitive information, or gain access to private computer systems.

We are probably most familiar with Malware such as viruses, trojans and worms which have been around since the dawn of computers. Today, Malware on personal PC’s would most likely be looking for personal information to use for profit – possibly by recording your keystrokes (very creepy..). You’ve probably heard at some point that only Windows PC’s are targeted, but it’s important to know that Mac’s are not immune. Since 2007 there has been a rapid increase in the number of viruses found on Mac’s and as more and more users switch to Mac’s the number of viruses will also increase.

What do Trusted Sites have to do with Malware?

Very little hopefully! Website owners pay companies such as Norton (Symantec) to run tests on their site to make sure Malware is kept out. One danger to us is that, without this level of security, a Malware creator may have found a way to inject their Malware into perfectly good software that we want to download – and when we install it, the Malware gets installed too. Most Malware is created so cleverly that you can’t see that you have it installed at all – not even in your programs or processes list. If a website is secured it will have a badge such as the Norton one here and you can be pretty sure it’s safe. Make sure you only download or buy from trusted sites.

Is Spyware a type of Malware?

This is the $64,000 question! Hmmm… yes and no. Spyware is designed to track what you do on the internet and use that information in some way to benefit the Spyware creator, so technically if you haven’t explicitly installed it, yes, it is Malware. It’s a funny one though, because some forms of Spyware are useful – like the ones that target ads at your interests, or suggest similar music or websites you might like (unless you don’t want anyone to know what your interests are….). Some Spyware is also packaged with legitimate software and the licence agreement vaguely worded to cover the use of it by the company – and since practically no one reads licence agreements you don’t know you are agreeing to it. A bit sneaky I reckon.

I’m getting paranoid now, how do I check if I have Malware on my pc?

Your security/firewall/antivirus software should run disk scans and check all your downloads – but it’s also useful to use a few different utilities and run them manually the odd time when you get worried. Malware is constantly evolving so there’s a risk that one utility will detect new ones faster than another.

Just to be safe, I have installed two – Malwarebytes (on a 60 day free trial) which was recommended by Jack Wallen who says its great for detecting Spyware; and Microsoft Windows Malicious Software Removing tool because, despite some detractors from the anti-Microsoft camp, it’s seems to work as well as any other tool – and it’s free! They were both very easy to install and run but can take a while to go through all your drives if you have a lot on them.

The good news is neither tool found anything on this PC (and if they had they would have automatically removed it) – woo hoo!

Top tip

The easiest and best way to keep your computer (or tablet, or phone) Malware free is to always keep your operating system and anti-virus software up to date. Make sure you switch automatic updates on – your system will be protected from any new viruses as early as possible.

And for an extra credit..

Ever wanted to know the difference between a virus, a trojan and a worm? If so – read on…

According to Wikipedia, a virus is something that gets distributed by you taking some action – like opening a dodgy attachment from someone which then infects your PC with a virus and can be passed on. During the late 90’s there were a few big ones that used your address book and email to distribute itself on – remember those? Mostly harmless from what I recall, before the online banking and shopping boom of course.

A trojan (from the trojan horse of Greek mythology) is Malware that gets installed along with desirable software. Spyware is commonly distributed in this way – but as mentioned above, you may actually be agreeing to it in the terms and condition.

A worm, on the other hand, actively transmits itself over a network to infect other computers.

So now you know 🙂

If you’d like to know more about Malware, click through to Jack Wallen’s and Wikipedia’s articles linked above or on some of the articles listed below.

Wishing you a very pleasant and Malware-free online shopping season!


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