Flavors of MalWare

The focus of malware has changed over time.  Originally, there were “free” screen savers and “free” background photography that carried minor reporting functions for advertisers.  Then came the background information gatherers that would collect and report to the cloud on anything the computer had done or seen.  Later yet came Keyloggers that would capture every keystroke and report that to hidden servers out on the internet.  Then came the scams; programs that stated they would remove any of the prior but actually brought in more malware and then held you hostage for anywhere from $20-$800 dollars to get all the crap removed from your system.  Recently there have been viruses and malware that encrypt data on your computer and hold you hostage; offering to give you your data back if you pay a ransom.  When combined with hacking efforts that add porn to your computer and then open it up as a server any of these become more than just annoying.  Oh yeah, I left out the harvesters; malware that harvests all of your mailing lists and then sets your machine up to spam disgusting material out to the mailing lists it has harvested.

Somewhere in the middle of this were corporate supported advertising campaigns where large sales interests pushed seemingly safe and free software out to get research software onto millions of computers to collect information for advertisers without the knowledge of the computer owners (yes, the fine print in the disclosure document did, in most cases, refer to the additional activities of the software being offered; but, the average user had no chance of understanding what that meant).  Companies like American Express, and Aurora Group were two that I encountered involving themselves in this behavior; but, I am sure others were involved also.

Today, skilled programmers write “kits” that hackers or unscrupulous entrepreneurs can include in some lovely tidbit of an app or useful add on for your electronic device that turn it into malware or into a trojan horse that will invite oodles of malware onto your device.  These kits give the rank and file (average skilled) author the kind of apparent skills that only a rare few have developed and make the whole malware industry flow; much to our expense.

MalWare – not our friend

Malware is rampant on the internet; should you be concerned? How well are you protected?
First, why should you be concerned? Malware is a general term for non-virus applications that are unintended parasites of various types on a computer. Some collect sales research, some collect passwords and other access information, some collect contact information or financial information, yet others are helpful to the user, and some are both. All of them consume resources (disk space, memory, clock cycles, etc.). It is this last item that usually tips off the user; the system gets slower. Are you still at risk if you run Linux, Unix, IOS, Mac OS, Android, or ChromeOS? Yes, while more “kits” for building malware seem to exist for Windows, there are plenty out there aimed at each kind of OS and the associated machines. The damage that can be done ranges from a simple slow down of your equipment to the deletion of important data, exposure of important data to criminals, to completely disabling your equipment and creating financial ruin.
How well are you protected? Malware may be invited on to your computer when you add some new feature, or accidentally click on an advertisement, or when a hacked webpage is viewed, or when a virus or trojan horse (virus or non-virus in nature) gets loose on your computer. Good anti-virus software should and will stop most of this if it is up to date and fully operational ; good anti-malware software will stop some of what the anti-virus isn’t capable of recognizing. Standard installations of windows 8 and 10 include Windows Defender which has both of these elements. If you install a 3rd party protection package, these elements are disabled in favor of the third party package’s protection. Further protection is available in the form of appliances physically installed between you and the internet at large; some are called firewalls but many are far more than just a firewall; providing protection against a wide range of threats.
What steps can you take to protect yourself and your equipment? Keep your anti-virus and anti-malware up to date and a firewall in place, regularly run a scan of your equipment, keep good and regular backups, and verify that your anti products are working (I am amazed by how many computers I am asked to fix that have the firewall turned off and / or the anti-virus turned off). When you browse, browse intelligently; if it looks suspicious, avoid it; if it looks too good to be true, avoid it (Really? do you have a long lost Uncle who was a billionaire?). When reading email, do not open emails you have no reason to expect (do you seriously expect to win a lottery you never entered? of course not), do not open attachments you aren’t expecting and , AND if you get a popup asking you to approve installing something when you weren’t intending installing, do not approve changing your computer or installing some new “thing”. Often exiting the offending popup is possible and adequate (scan your machine immediately in any case); if not, try canceling it with the task manager (from windows, ctrl-alt-delete will make windows task manager available), if that fails, a reboot may be appropriate. One more thing; if some purchased program insists that you disable anti-virus in order to install it, never disable the anti-virus. I am aware of no commercial programs that won’t install with good anti-virus and anti-malware products active: none!
The short of it, browse and read safely, make backups of anything important, and weekly or more often scan for both viruses and malware. Scan with appropriate software; I can recommend products from Microsoft, Trend Micro, Sophos, Malwarebytes, LavaSoft, SpybotSD, Auslogics, and Piriform. Choose appropriate products to protect against viruses and malware along with performing regular maintenance to keep your equipment performing as intended. Have questions? Ask your IT professional before you have trouble.