Easy Guide to Understanding the Malware Threat

By: Paige Price


In its broadest sense, malware (short for ‘malicious software’) is the term given to any program or file that is inserted into your computer without your permission, in order to damage your system, steal information or cause it to perform illicit actions.

Malware is spread by any means that a normal file is shared – through a network, between drives, and via the Internet. The majority of these infections are spread through email, websites (even legitimate ones can be compromised) and social networking platforms such as MySpace and Facebook.

While malware has been around since the 1980’s, the current problem is the advent of automated tools, which churn these infections out by the dozens in the time it previously took to create a single one.

The variations of malware are numerous – they include viruses, worms, spyware, adware and Trojan horses. It’s important to understand the main differences in the types of malware since the means of getting rid of them effectively depends on it. For example, while many people refer to worms as viruses, the technique for removing a worm from your computer system is completely different than the approach for disinfecting a virus.

The following guide will help you understand the malware threat so that you can find the right tools of combat to keep your PC healthy.

Viruses

As per its name, a virus is defined as a programme that replicates itself and generally infects legitimate files on your PC. Like biological viruses, computer viruses seek to exploit systems for their own purposes – they hide in your computer and cause damage. Not all viruses directly infect files however, instead some forms work to destabilise your system so that harmful viral code can then be introduced.

Worms

In contrast, worms are malicious programs that copy themselves from system to system, rather than infiltrating legitimate files in your computer like viruses. For example: a mass-mailing email worm sends copies of itself via email and an Internet worm sends copies of itself via compromised computers on the Internet network.

Trojans

Unlike the first two types of infections that replicate themselves, Trojans are generally defined as malware that causes a different and malicious action other than what the PC users expects. Most often, Trojans are associated with remote access programs that perform criminal operations such as password-stealing or hijacking your computer for targeted attacks on other computers. For example, a denial of service (DoS) attack involves flooding a target system with so much data, traffic, or commands that it can no longer perform its core functions. When multiple machines are gathered together to launch such an attack, it is known as a distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS.

Adware

Adware is a program that hijacks your PC for marketing profit – often hidden inside freeware offered on the Internet, once you unknowingly download the program it can then install a toolbar or cause popup ads for unsolicited advertising purposes. More aggressive adware can cause significant disruption to the functioning of your PC by hijacking your browser start or search pages and redirecting you to sites you’ve not chosen. Other than being highly annoying, the mechanism that feeds the advertising can cause problems with other programs in your system.

Spyware

Spyware is offensive as it tracks and monitors your computer and Internet usage. The information gathered, referred to as "traffic data", includes the web sites you visit, ads you click, and time you spend on certain sites. This can be used for far more dangerous purposes than market research - spyware tracking can link your computer system's unique numerical ID (MAC address) and IP address, combine it with your online surfing habits and match it with any personal information you enter when registering for free programs or filling out web forms. The spyware sender then trades this information with affiliate advertising partners, building an increasingly complex dossier on who you are and what you like to do online. Another frightening example of spyware includes keyloggers, which record your keystrokes or screenshots and sends them to criminals who then gain access to your IDs, passwords, credit card numbers, and other sensitive information.

While viruses, worms and Trojans are primarily tackled by virus removal software, additional protection is needed for adware and spyware removal. There is a wealth of products available for you to choose from, but if you find IT problems and threats a little daunting, it’s a good idea to bring in the experts for peace of mind in keeping your PC healthy.

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Michael Preston – IT Consultant and expert in anti virus protection

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