APR 14, 2024 / Scams

How to protect yourself against malware

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They used to be called “Computer Viruses”, back when most of that kind of software was more destructive than it was financially based, but these days you’re more likely to hear or read about malware.

Malware is short for “malicious software”, and it’s quite a broad term that covers any kind of application designed to harm a computer’s operation or the activities of its user. That can cover maliciously destroying or limiting access to files, hijacking computer resources for other purposes or spying on user activity on that computer.

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What kinds of malware are there?

Malware is constantly evolving, so defining it is a tricky business. Some forms of malware can be used for a variety of attacks, so that if one avenue doesn’t work for the malware author, another one might. So, while malware can take in viruses, rootkits, worms and other forms, it’s really what the malware wants to do – or wants from you – that’s important here.

Malware can include:

Ransomware

This is software that encrypts your documents – and often the entire operating system of your computer – locking it down and demanding payment if you want access back to your computer

Spyware

Malware of this type watches, records and reports what you’re doing on your computer. It’s often used with keylogging applications that can then try to discern (for example) your login passwords for online banking services.

Adware

This kind of malware tries to serve up unwanted advertising – often quite a lot of it – in order to get money from advertising companies. If you open up your web browser and you’re hit with hundreds of pop-up windows, you could well be an adware victim. Note that just having ads present on a website isn’t absolute proof of adware being present

Botnets

Some malware isn’t so interested in you as it is your computer and its online capabilities. Botnet malware takes over some or all of the internet functions of your computer, often to then mass attack other online services. If you think of it like a road, if your car and thousands of others tried to get on the one stretch of highway, it would quickly slow to a crawl or stop completely. That’s the essence of what’s called a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack, and it relies on having thousands of botnet infected computers to call on.

How can I protect myself against Malware?

Keep your computer and devices up to date

A lot of malware relies on weaknesses and exploits that take advantage of code errors in operating systems and some file types. Making sure that you’re up to date with the latest operating system updates, security patches and firmware updates across your devices is a must to ensure that even if malware reaches your system, it can’t do any harm.

Use good anti-virus software

The battle between antivirus software vendors and malware writers is a constant cat-and-mouse game, and it’s been the case for decades now. Still, it’s worth being protected, because while AV software has both a financial cost and a small cost in terms of processing power, it beats having your system wiped or your bank accounts drained via malware. Bear in mind that you do also need to keep your AV software up to date via subscription. It’s not just enough to buy it once, sadly. Also, if you figure that malware’s only a problem for folks who visit dodgy websites (however you define dodgy), think again. It’s very common for malware writers to try to embed malware installs in flaws in reputable websites too.

Be careful about what you install or open

That “free” copy of a big paid application you found online might not be so consequence-free if it’s riddled with malware. Likewise, malware writers have been known to hide their dodgy code within some file types, using specific application weaknesses to run their code in the background even if they appear to be a genuine file. If a file asks for extra permissions to run in a way that you didn’t expect, it may be unwise to allow it to run.

Back up your files regularly

If the worst happens, and you fall victim to ransomware or malware that wipes out your computer’s operating system, it’s usually possible to reinstall that computer back to a blank slate, like it was when you first purchased it. You’re back on deck… but all your own files are irretrievably gone. Gone, that is, unless you remembered to back them up on a regular basis. While backup can be a touch slow and a bit boring, you’ll thank yourself if you ever have to recover those files after a malware disaster.

More cyber security tips and tricks to help to keep you safe online:

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Photo of Alex Kidman
Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.