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All about malware
You know how every year the medical community campaigns for everyone to get a flu shot? That’s because flu outbreaks typically have a season—a time of year when they start spreading and infecting people.
In contrast, there are no predictable seasonal infections for PCs, smartphones, tablets, and enterprise networks. For them, it’s always flu season. But instead of suffering chills and body aches, users can fall ill from a kind of machine malady—malware.
Malware infections come at us like a torrent of water from a fire hose, each with its own methods of attack—from stealthy and sneaky to subtle like a sledgehammer. But if knowledge is power, as a preventative inoculation against infection, we offer here a short course on malware, what it is, its symptoms, how you get it, how to deal with it, and how to avoid it in the future.
What is malware?
Malware, or “malicious software,” is an umbrella term that describes any malicious program or code that is harmful to systems.
Hostile, intrusive, and intentionally nasty, malware seeks to invade, damage, or disable computers, computer systems, networks, tablets, and mobile devices, often by taking partial control over a device’s operations. Like the human flu, it interferes with normal functioning.
Malware is all about making money off you illicitly. Although malware cannot damage the physical hardware of systems or network equipment (with one known exception—see the Google Android section below), it can steal, encrypt, or delete your data, alter or hijack core computer functions, and spy on your computer activity without your knowledge or permission.
How can I tell if I have a malware infection?
Malware can reveal itself with many different aberrant behaviors. Here are a few telltale signs that you have malware on your system:
- Your computer slows down. One of malware’s main effects is to reduce the speed of your operating system, whether you’re navigating the Internet or just using your local applications.
- A tidal wave of annoying ads that shouldn’t be there washes over your screen. Unexpected pop-up ads are a typical sign of a malware infection. They’re especially associated with a form of malware known as adware. What’s more, pop-ups usually come packaged with other hidden malware threats. So if you see something akin to “CONGRATULATIONS, YOU’VE WON A FREE PSYCHIC READING!” in a pop-up, don’t click on it. Whatever free prize the ad promises, it will cost you plenty.
- Your system repeatedly crashes, freezes, or displays a BSOD (Blue Screen of Death), which can occur on Windows systems after encountering a fatal error.
- You notice a mysterious loss of disk space, probably due to a bloated malware squatter which hides in your hard drive.
- There’s a weird increase in your system’s Internet activity.
- Usage of your system resources is abnormally high and your computer’s fan starts whirling away at full speed—signs of malware activity taking up system resources in the background.
- Your browser’s homepage changes without your permission. Similarly, links you click send you to an unwanted web destination. This usually means you clicked on that “congratulations” pop-up, which downloaded some unwanted software. Likewise, your browser might slow to a crawl.
- New toolbars, extensions, or plugins unexpectedly populate your browser.
- Your antivirus product stops working and you cannot update it, leaving you unprotected against the sneaky malware that disabled it.
- Then there’s the painfully obvious, intentionally non-stealthy malware attack. This famously happens with ransomware, which announces itself, tells you it has your data, and demands a ransom to return your files.
- Even if everything seems to be working just fine on your system, don’t get complacent, because no news isn’t necessarily good news. Powerful malware can hide deep in your computer, going about its dirty business without raising any red flags as it snags your passwords, steals sensitive files, or uses your PC to spread to other computers.
How do I get malware?
The recipe for a malware infection calls for a long list of ingredients. Topmost are the two most common ways that malware accesses your system—the Internet and email. So basically, anytime you’re connected online.
Malware can penetrate your computer when (deep breath now) you surf through hacked websites, click on game demos, download infected music files, install new toolbars from an unfamiliar provider, set up software from a dicey source, open a malicious email attachment (malspam), or pretty much everything else you download from the web onto a device that lacks a quality anti-malware security application.
Malicious apps can hide in seemingly legitimate applications, especially when they are downloaded from websites or messages instead of a secure app store. Here it’s important to look at the warning messages when installing applications, especially if they seek permission to access your email or other personal information.
“Malware attacks would not work without the most important ingredient: you.”
Bottom line, it’s best to stick to trusted sources for mobile apps, only installing reputable third-party apps, and always downloading those apps directly from the vendor—and never from any other site. All in all, there is a world of bad actors out there, throwing tainted bait at you with an offer for an Internet accelerator, new download manager, hard disk drive cleaner, or an alternative web search service.
Malware attacks would not work without the most important ingredient: you. That is, a gullible version of you, willing to open up an email attachment you don’t recognize, or to click and install something from an untrustworthy source. And don’t take this as “click-shaming,” because even very experienced people have been tricked into installing malware.
Even if you install something from a credible source, if you don’t pay attention to the permission request to install other bundled software at the same time, you could be installing software you don’t want. This extra software, also known as a potentially unwanted program (PUP), is often presented as a necessary component, but it often isn’t.
Another wrinkle is a bit of social engineering that a Malwarebytes expert observed in the UK. The scam hit mobile users by taking advantage of a common mobile direct-to-bill payment option. Users visited mobile sites, unwittingly tripping invisible buttons that charge them via their mobile numbers, directly billing the victims’ networks, which pass the cost onto their bill.
To be fair, we should also include a blameless malware infection scenario. Because it’s even possible that just visiting a malicious website and viewing an infected page and/or banner ad will result in a drive-by malware download.
On the other hand, if you’re not running an adequate security program, the malware infection and its aftermath are still on you.
What are the most common forms of malware?
Here are the most common offenders in the rogues’ gallery of malware:
- Adware is unwanted software designed to throw advertisements up on your screen, most often within a web browser. Typically, it uses an underhanded method to either disguise itself as legitimate, or piggyback on another program to trick you into installing it on your PC, tablet, or mobile device.
- Spyware is malware that secretly observes the computer user’s activities without permission and reports it to the software’s author.
- A virus is malware that attaches to another program and, when executed—usually inadvertently by the user—replicates itself by modifying other computer programs and infecting them with its own bits of code.
- Worms are a type of malware similar to viruses, self-replicating in order to spread to other computers over a network, usually causing harm by destroying data and files.
- A Trojan, or Trojan horse, is one of the most dangerous malware types. It usually represents itself as something useful in order to trick you. Once it’s on your system, the attackers behind the Trojan gain unauthorized access to the affected computer. From there, Trojans can be used to steal financial information or install threats like viruses and ransomware.
- Ransomware is a form of malware that locks you out of your device and/or encrypts your files, then forces you to pay a ransom to get them back. Ransomware has been called the cyber criminal’s weapon of choice because it demands a quick, profitable payment in hard-to-trace cryptocurrency. The code behind ransomware is easy to obtain through online criminal marketplaces and defending against it is very difficult.
- Rootkit is a form of malware that provides the attacker with administrator privileges on the infected system. Typically, it is also designed to stay hidden from the user, other software on the system, and the operating system itself.
- A keylogger is malware that records all the user’s keystrokes on the keyboard, typically storing the gathered information and sending it to the attacker, who is seeking sensitive information like usernames, passwords, or credit card details.
- Malicious cryptomining, also sometimes called drive-by mining or cryptojacking, is an increasingly prevalent malware usually installed by a Trojan. It allows someone else to use your computer to mine cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Monero. So instead of letting you cash in on your own computer’s horsepower, the cryptominers send the collected coins into their own account and not yours. Essentially, a malicious cryptominer is stealing your resources to make money.
- Exploits are a type of malware that takes advantage of bugs and vulnerabilities in a system in order to allow the exploit’s creator to take control. Among other threats, exploits are linked to malvertising, which attacks through a legitimate site that unknowingly pulls in malicious content from a bad site. Then the bad content tries to install itself on your computer in a drive-by download. No clicking is necessary. All you have to do is visit a good site on the wrong day.
What is the history of malware?
Given the variety of malware types and the massive number of variants released into the wild daily, a full history of malware would comprise a list too long to include here. That said, a look at malware trends in recent decades is more manageable. Here are the main trends in malware development.
The 1980s and onward: The theoretical underpinning of “self-reproducing automata” (i.e., viruses) dates back to an article published in 1949, and early viruses occurred on pre-personal computer platforms in the 1970s. However, the history of modern viruses begins with a program called Elk Cloner, which started infecting Apple II systems in 1982. Disseminated by infected floppy disks, the virus itself was harmless, but it spread to all disks attached to a system, exploding so virulently that it can be considered the first large-scale computer virus outbreak in history. Note that this was prior to any Windows PC malware. Since then, viruses and worms have become widespread.
The 1990s: The Microsoft Windows platform emerged this decade, along with the flexible macros of its applications, which led malware authors to write infectious code in the macro language of Microsoft Word and other programs. These macro viruses infected documents and templates rather than executable applications, although strictly speaking, the Word document macros are a form of executable code.
2002 to 2007: Instant messaging worms—self-replicating malicious code spread through an instant messaging network—take advantage of network loopholes to spread on a massive scale, infecting the AOL AIM network, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger, as well as corporate instant messaging systems.
2005 to 2009: Adware attacks proliferated, presenting unwanted advertisements to computer screens, sometimes in the form of a pop-up or in a window that users could not close. These ads often exploited legitimate software as a means to spread, but around 2008, software publishers began suing adware companies for fraud. The result was millions of dollars in fines. This eventually drove adware companies to shut down.
2007 to 2009: Malware scammers turned to social networks such as MySpace as a channel for delivering rogue advertisements, redirects, and offers of fake antivirus and security tools. Their ploys were designed to dupe consumers through social engineering tricks. After MySpace declined in popularity, Facebook and Twitter became the preferred platforms. Common tactics included presenting fake links to phishing pages and promoting Facebook applications with malicious extensions. As this trend tapered down, scammers explored other means to steal.
2013: A new form of malware called ransomware launched an attack under the name CryptoLocker, which continued from early September 2013 to late May 2014, targeting computers running Windows. CryptoLocker succeeded in forcing victims to pay about $27 million by the last quarter of 2013. Moreover, the ransomware’s success spawned other similarly named ransomware. One copycat variant netted more than $18 million from about 1,000 victims between April 2014 and June 2015.
2013 to 2017: Delivered through Trojans, exploits, and malvertising, ransomware became the king of malware, culminating in huge outbreaks in 2017 that affected businesses of all kinds. Ransomware works by encrypting the victim’s data, then demanding payments to release it.
2017 to Present: Cyptocurrency—and how to mine for it—has captured widespread attention, leading to a new malware scam called cryptojacking, or the act of secretly using someone else’s device to surreptitiously mine for cryptocurrency with the victims’ resources.