Malware is a generic term used to describe any malicious software. Most people recognize the term “virus,” but in reality, malware varies in prevention, symptoms, and treatment. Ultimately, they’re all designed to harm your computer and/or steal your information. The key to dealing with virtual villains is to be able to identify their differences. Here’s how:
A virus replicates and spreads.
Just as a human virus multiplies and spreads from person to person, a computer virus does the same. Clicking on a prompt without reading it is the most common way a computer can become infected, and accidentally installing a virus is the equivalent of feeding Mogwai after midnight. It seems innocent enough, but basically wreaks gremlin-like havoc, multiplying and terrorizing your files, sometimes rendering your machine completely useless. Some viruses will corrupt or delete arbitrary files, while others are capable of targeting the important stuff, such as autorun scripts and MS Office macros.
Spyware steals your information.
Spyware is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s designed to collect information about you to be used in various fiendish ways, like stealing your passwords and sensitive information, adding annoying toolbars, etc. Spyware is harder to detect because it doesn’t usually halt processes, but rather just slows them down. Many people don’t even realize they’re infected, and more often than not, they’re infected by more than one. It’s a slippery villain, and not all antivirus software is capable of detecting it.
Ransomware holds your files hostage.
Ransomware comes in many forms, often posing as alarmist antivirus software, or a sketchy email file that essentially invades your machine, locks up your files, and holds them hostage for a ransom. In most cases paying the ransom does nothing and you won’t be able to uninstall the ransomware, or even use your machine.
Trojans install back doors.
Trojans are also appropriately named malware, because like the legend of the Trojan Horse, they install a “back door,” which will allow your machine to be controlled from a remote location. They won’t replicate like a virus, and must be installed, but otherwise work similarly. They can also use your machine as a proxy server for concealing attacks against other machines, or sending ridiculous amounts of spam. Not cool.
Worms infiltrate your network.
A worm, commonly mistaken as a virus, can destroy files on your machine by multiplying and sending copies of itself through a network, without any user interaction. They take advantage of network vulnerabilities and can be somewhat prevented through a well-built firewall.
Virtual villains evolve constantly. Take precautions and be sure to keep your antivirus software updated; in general, don’t install suspicious looking files (an mp3 should not end in exe, and so on). And when in doubt, contact an IT professional!