Understanding malware and its many branches is kind of like walking into a Baskin and Robbins ice cream shop. There so many flavors and shades that it can be maddening to understand what’s going on. We have all come across terms like worms, viruses, and spyware but it can be a sticky mess to decode what each one really means so most people use them interchangeably. This leads to even more problems, for example, when people use the wrong methods to try to get rid of whatever malady their computer is suffering from. “Um, I’d like to order one chocolate trojan sundae topped with hot fudge and rootkits, in a worm cone, please.”
So to alleviate confusion we present to you the Ultimate BeWARE Guide, designed to help you navigate the (under)world of the garbage that’s already on, or may soon try to infiltrate your PC. Knowledge is power so stay armed with this handy reference guide.
(Note that sometimes definitions overlap and certainly there are cases when programs can take on more than one form.)
The first thing you need to know is that all of these programs are subsets of malware. Malware is a combination of the words malicious and software and is an umbrella term for any program or application built with the intent of disrupting computer usage or gathering personal data. Some of the most common kinds of malware are Trojans, viruses, and scareware. Then there are some “ware’s”, like adware and bloatware that are not inherently dangerous but can end up wreaking havoc on your PC anyway.
A sampling of malware’s most popular flavors:
Trojans – If you remember a thing or two about Greek Mythology from grade school, it’s most likely about that huge wooden horse that the Greeks used as a hideout on the shores of Troy. The imposing figure stood in plain sight for a day but only a select few understood its danger until it was too late. True to their name, trojans follow this duplicitous model. You think you’re downloading free software or opening a harmless link in an email but it’s really infected and dangerous. Trojans need human interaction, such as sending infected email attachments, to spread. Their goals are varied according to the particular one – sometimes they are out to damage your files and sometimes they can act as a backdoor to let hackers on to your system.
Adware – Software designed to deliver ads. Adware typically gets on to a PC by downloading a legit and desired free software. Surprise! The creators thought you looked like you needed a present so they gave you adware. How touching. Adware, which often comes in the form of pop-ups, is generally designed to create revenue for the advertiser and isn’t necessarily malware but it can come with some other very dangerous programs attached to it. Adware itself slows your PC down and eats up memory.
Spyware – Remember when we said adware could come with some super nasty stuff? Well, this is what we meant. Spyware monitors your computer and send information to third parties about everything from your browsing habits to your electronic records. It can record keystrokes to learn passwords and change your browsers. According to Lifehacker.com, spyware typically won’t damage your PC as it stands to make money off of it – It just completely compromises your online security.
Bloatware – (Also called crapware) Promotional software that comes on new PC’s. This kind of programs is put on your PC by the PC manufacturers themselves for their own gain as they often make deals with software companies to promote their products. Again, this is another example of a “ware” that’s not necessarily malware but can cause many problems and slow your PC down to a crawl if not dealt with.
Viruses – Ever the famed, viruses are malicious code or programs that attach themselves to other pieces of software and when the program is run, the virus reproduces, infecting the next victim. Viruses, which are transmitted via infected files and links can destroy data and corrupt, delete and hide files.
Ransomware – Recently made famous by Cryptowall and Cryptolocker, ransomware is malware that holds your PC ransom by encrypting files. It gets onto PCs by exploiting vulnerabilities in networks like worms (see below) and files can only be unlocked once the hackers who created the program get paid handsomely in bitcoins or other anonymous forms of payment.
Scareware – Pop-ups on websites that pose as legitimate anti-virus software. They pretend to scan your PC and report back immediately that your PC is, of course, infected with 237 different viruses and in order to fix them, and regain a perfectly working PC, you NEED to download this new program. But wait, there’s just one little caveat – you need to pay for it! Once someone falls for this rouse and gives over their credit card information, the newly installed software can take on any rogue characteristics of other malware. Oh, and did we mention they have your credit card number now?
Worms – Worms are similar to viruses and are most likely what you think of when you hear the words computer virus. But worms don’t need to attach themselves to any other software or program – they simply replicate themselves and move on to the next computer in that particular network. They move fast, without any human action needed, so they can cost businesses lots of money in damages. Often, worms will create a “backdoor” like trojans do, to create a “zombie” computer that acts as part of a botnet, or a group of computers being controlled for the same malicious purpose.
Rootkits – Not quite as famous as their scandalous counterparts, rootkits are quite possibly the most damaging runt of the pack. Like adware, rootkits can be bundled with other non-legit software and like viruses, can be passed from one user to another via infected files. Once on your PC, rootkits burrow deep inside and basically give the rootkit creator admin levels of control so they can access everything on your PC.
They all sound pretty bad, right? Well, they are but most of them can be avoided by using an up-to-date anti-virus and malware blocking program, and by making sure you surf the web smartly. Don’t open links if you aren’t positive that they are safe. Use Reasons’ own Unchecky to make sure you don’t end up agreeing to any unwanted downloads when installing software. Stay away from optimizers and toolbars. Following these practices should keep your pretty PC sparkling. Now you’re an expert in ID’ing malware, understanding how it gets on to computers and what you need to do to keep your PC safe. Go ahead and give yourself a treat, you deserve it for your hard work! Maybe just skip the ice cream shop for today…