Malicious software, or malware, is a tricky creature. It wears many disguises in its effort to trick you into installing it, and if you have a habit of clicking on things that look interesting, you may be setting yourself up for trouble. Malware performs many disservices on the Internet, from wreaking havoc on computer systems to making your personal information available to thieves seeking to steal your identity.
Let’s take a look at the various ways malware entices users:
Also known as phishing scams, emails that appear to be from a legitimate company that ask you to click on a link within the email may in reality be a scam. Clicking on a link could send to you a false website that installs malware, which in turn may mine your computer for your personal information.
Close kin to the phishing scam described above, an email that contains an attachment could harbor malware in that attachment. Bottom line: if you don’t recognize the sender and you’re not expecting an email with an attachment, don’t open it.
“Warning!!!! Your Computer Has a Virus! Click HERE to remove it!” Could it be more obvious that this is a ploy to get you to install malware? Most of us are familiar with pop-ups. They come disguised as home refinance offers, virus alerts, sweepstakes entries, and the like, and they are the digital equivalent of junk mail.
False update alerts
If you receive a notice regarding an update for software that is unfamiliar, there is a good chance it’s actually a ploy to get you to install malware. Accept the recommended update, and the rogue software downloads to your computer.
Malicious software can come in the form of legitimate-looking websites or emails. If you did not request information from a legitimate company and yet get a message that looks as if it’s from that company, it may be a spoof of the company site. Tread carefully.
Many, many websites out there make use of ads on their pages, but be careful about clicking on them. Hovering over the ad without clicking on it will produce a box on your screen that shows you the website address the ad is affiliated with. If it doesn’t match up with what’s being advertised, that’s a big red flag.
If you are conducting a search online for security software, rogue security software may show up in the search results. It’s often difficult to tease out the real from the fake when it comes to security software; be aware that malware may be lurking in your search results. Thoroughly research your options before you download any software.
What are some symptoms of a malware infection?
Perhaps you’ve noticed your computer isn’t behaving in its usual manner. Don’t assume it’s malware, but don’t assume it’s not, either. One big tipoff that your system may have malware is the slowdown — programs take longer to open, and web pages are slow to load. When you open up a browser, you may notice that your homepage has been changed, and you’re certain you didn’t change it. Or you click on a Google search link and are redirected to a different address than the one you clicked on. Or you may find yourself unable to browse the Internet, even though you know your network connection is up and running. Popups, particularly ones that pop up even if you don’t have a browser opened, are another sign that malware may be lurking on your system.
So how do you know if your computer’s quirks are the result of malware?
One way to check your computer for malware is to go to the Microsoft website and download their (free) Safety Scanner, which will scan your system for current malware threats. Be aware, however, that a one-time scan is not enough protection. The Safety Scanner tool expires ten days after it’s been downloaded; Microsoft continually updates the malware definitions the tool uses. After ten days you will need to re-download the most current edition of the scanner. If your system is infected, you can download their (free) Malicious Software Removal Tool to remove the malware that’s been found.
Malicious software is a global, multi-billion dollar business, and it will only get larger and more sophisticated. Reduce your chances of becoming infected by learning secure web browsing techniques and recognizing the various forms malware can take. If you find your computer has been infected, address the issue right away.