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A Guide About Malware: What is Malware and How Does It Work?

Technology has made its way into every crevice of our daily lives. From computers to smart devices, we are connected at all times. While this has essentially changed the way we work and play, it has also put us at risk of harm. Malware is one such entity that has and is causing harm to people and businesses every year. To better protect ourselves from these modern threats, we’ll need to be aware of them and increase our defenses against them.

In this article, we will cover the following topics briefly:

  • What is Malware?
  • Is malware a virus?
  • How dangerous is malware?
  • Types of malware.
  • Can malware be removed?
  • How to detect malware?
  • What are the ways to prevent malware?
  • What are the Best Anti-Malware Softwares?
  • What Are The Malware Examples?

What is Malware?#

Malware is a broad term used for computer programs that are malicious in nature and are used by design to cause harm and exploit vulnerabilities in a system, service, or computer network.

Understanding malware is important because there are literally billions of malware attacks being carried out each year. In 2020, around 5.6 billion malware attacks took place which is actually a decrease from 2019.

Malware infects computers systems, devices, networks, and servers. Hackers and bad actors commonly use phishing emails, malicious files that are unintentionally downloaded by people, infected hardware, among other methods to infect devices.

Is Malware a Virus?#

Technically, viruses and malware are very different. So no, malware is not a virus. But in a layman discussion, they are often used interchangeably.

A computer virus is a piece of software that when executed replicates itself by changing other software and adding its own malicious code.

Malware on the other hand is designed to cause harm to physical computer systems, clients and servers, as well as entire computer networks.

How Dangerous is Malware?#

According to Cyber Security Ventures, global cybercrime can cost $10.5 trillion per year by 2025. This figure is not only remarkable, but it also shows how big of an industry cybercrime itself has become.

Yes, the financial burden is indeed huge, but it overlooks the human misery of cyber attacks, online extortion, loss of intellectual property, system damage, among other things cause to people.

Malware, along with other viruses will continue to wreak havoc unless there is a worldwide consensus to increase mindful consumer behavior and incentivize the cybersecurity industry.

A lot of malware and cybersecurity lapses are preventable. Unfortunately, most individuals and even organizations do not take their digital security seriously.

What happens as a result is an inconvenience in the form of data loss, service outages, violation of privacy, losing your competitive advantage, financial loss, among other things.

Types of Malware#

In this section, we will be discussing the different types of malware.

There will always be new kinds of malware being concocted, but having a general sense of the different types will help keep you safe.

1- Fileless Malware#

Fileless malware is a relatively new form of malware that was first brought to the mainstream after some major attacks in 2017. Although these sorts of malware have been around since 2014.

Fileless malware does not rely on malicious files. Instead it attaches itself to other software, apps and tools that are already built in on your OS.

This malware then waits for legitimate programs to be executed and begins executing its own malicious code.

Detecting fileless malware is a challenge since it is memory-based. The absence of malicious files makes detecting and dealing with it a challenge.But this does not mean that detecting it is impossible.

Fileless malware relies on human mistakes and failures. To detect fileless malware, you’ll need something that is known as an endpoint security monitor.

This endpoint security monitor is not dependent on your operating system and is used to keep an eye on malicious activity.

The con to using this monitor is that it consumes a lot of memory given the nature of fileless malware itself.

The removal process for fileless malware is tricky as you will first need to identify all the malware before starting the removal process. Fileless malware will definitely come back if you are not careful about this step.

Next, you will need to use tools like Poweliks or WMIGhost.

These tools will let you identify files that are malicious in nature. Removing them is another challenge as these files might be generated again if you delete them.

Find the load point for the fileless malware. Along with the load point, you will need to find the associated scripts and shortcuts to find all of the malware.

Using either of the tools above you can find this load point. Analyzing these files will give you more insights into how the malware works and communicates across a network.

Generally, there will be URLs present in this load point that are using a remote port for their IPs. You can then use the tools to delete these files. You can confirm by using the Process Explorer that the malicious files have finally stopped working.

2- Spyware#

Spyware is a type of malware that is used to enter a computer system, gather information, and then forward that information to a third party without acquiring the consent of the party involved.

Spyware is generally used when the stolen data is to be bartered for and sold.

Recently a new spyware program known as Pegasus was said to be used against politicians, journalists and key figures from various countries. The company that had made the spyware, NSO, claims that Pegasus was only intended to be used against terrorists and criminals.

The effects of spyware on your computer might be a decrease in speed and performance, longer start times, corrupted programs, personal information being stolen through emails, websites visited and passwords entered, etc.

Spyware is generally detected when the user of the computer system notices the above-mentioned effects that spyware has. But to be sure, it is always a good idea to scan your system using reputable anti-spyware or anti-malware software.

When it comes to removing spyware, you can choose the easy route that involves using anti-malware that can identify and delete malicious files on its own.

The other way to remove spyware is to manually go and find files that look out of place and have unusual names. You can then carefully remove these files after making sure that they are not going to harm your system.

Once you have identified spyware, you can then type in MSCONFIG in the search bar and disable suspected spyware. Then use the task manager to kill the process. Proceed to uninstall the spyware from the control panel.

Additionally, delete all files present in the TEMP folder. Restart your system when all the files are deleted. Your system should be free of spyware now.

3- Adware#

Advertising-supported software or Adware is a type of application that, when installed, displays advertisements when the user is online in order to generate revenue.

Adwares are generally not malicious in nature and usually collect the user’s data with their consent. Some examples of free software that depend on adware for their revenue generation are Facebook, Youtube, Google, etc. Adware is mostly used by ‘free’ software that uses it as a source of revenue, and sometimes offers paid versions of themselves that come without adware.

Adware is usually not dangerous, but it can be quite irritating having an ad pop up on your screen from time to time. However, some adware takes a step into the spyware family and can track user activity without the knowledge or consent of the user. Some companies can even sell the user's activity and browsing history to third parties for additional revenue. Cybercriminals can also use a “drive-by-download” which is a type of adware that can load a malicious code into your operating system when you accidentally visit their website.

The major disadvantages of adware include an infinite number of pop-up ads, slowing down your device, eating up your data/internet allowance, and in worst cases, turning into spyware by tracking your activity and history.

There are several different methods you can use against adware. The simplest one can be using an antivirus. But since some adware software is free of actual malicious code, an antivirus may not be useful.

Another method is using an ad-blocker which blocks the pop-up advertisements from being displayed, hence reducing the risk of clicking on a malicious ad.

The third way to get rid of adware is to buy premium or ad-free versions of the adware using apps. This one is the easiest but more costly method of dealing with adware. Finally, you can also use specialized adware removal software that can remove any potentially harmful adware from your system.

4- Trojans#

A trojan is malicious software that hides within a harmless-looking application.

It uses deception to fool unsuspecting users into installing the malicious file, after which, it reveals its true malicious ulterior motives.

There are various types of trojans, all of which have different effects on the user’s system. Some common examples include:

  • Backdoor trojans allow hackers to access and control a system remotely. It can be used to download, install or upload files into the user’s computer.
  • Banker trojans specifically target the user’s personal banking information used for online transactions.
  • Downloader Trojans are malware designed to download more malicious files into the system once installed, including more trojans.
  • Zombie Trojans or DDos trojans execute distributed-denial-of-service attacks, where the computer or device is disabled due to a flood of traffic and requests from various sources.
  • Spyware Trojans, as the name suggests, track your online presence, access your online accounts or credit card information, and transfer your passwords and other data back to the hacker.

As far as detecting trojan malware is concerned, you will notice poor performance from your system, applications running slower, or crashing frequently. You may observe auto-initiated programs running in the background or other pop-ups and unusual processes.

To deal with trojan malware, the most common method is using good quality anti-malware software. You can also keep your system safe from such malware by never downloading software from untrusted sources, or opening attachments or programs sent to you by unknown emailers.

5- Worms#

Worms are malware that can replicate themselves automatically to spread throughout a system.

A worm can infect a computer and replicate itself to consume large amounts of memory and bandwidth, hence slowing down the system or even crashing programs. Worms can also be programmed to delete or modify files. Worms are primarily used to simply waste the computer’s resources like the hard drive or bandwidth. In other cases, worms can also steal information or even create backdoors into the system for a hacker to access it.

The best way to get rid of worms is by getting good anti-malware security software. Go into safe mode and then use the anti-malware software to remove worms from your system.

6- Rootkits#

Rootkits are a type of malware that gives bad actors access to your system usually in a concealed fashion.

The word rootkit is a combination of root (referred to privileged accounts on UNIX OS like Linux) and kit (referring to a software tool).

This means that your system might be monitored or controlled by a hacker right under your nose.

Rootkits can be detected by observing your computer system. You might be facing slower performance coupled with setting changes that were not authorized by you. Unusual internet activity can be detected from your browser history.

Blue screens and an abundance of error messages are also common observations when a system is infected with rootkit malware.

Rootkits are challenging to remove. In most cases, even if you scan your system with anti-malware, you might probably need to do a fresh OS install.

7- Keyloggers#

Keyloggers, as the name suggests, log the keys entered on a computer system.

Keyloggers are generally used to transfer credentials and other personal information to hackers. This data is then used to have greater leverage over the unfortunate victim.

As you can expect, keyloggers are hidden from the user as they are using the keyboard and typing.

Detecting keyloggers is doable if you monitor your cursor and typing. Often keyloggers interrupt your typing while also shifting the mouse cursor to unintended positions.

You will also notice a decrease in speed given to the fact that information is being transferred usually over the internet to the hacker.

The foolproof way to remove keyloggers from your system would be to install the OS again and follow the next steps given below”

  • Firstly, make sure that your system is up to date.

Security updates help make sure that any vulnerabilities present on your system are fixed.

  • Then analyze the processes currently being performed using the task manager.

You can simply do this by opening the Task Manager and analyzing the different tasks being carried out by your system

  • Check for unusual activity.

If you find a program or a file that shouldn’t be running, then you should do a quick google search to learn more about the file currently being executed.

  • Scan your device using anti-malware.

An anti malware scan will help confirm the presence of any keylogger or other malware that might be present.

  • If the keylogger is visible, try uninstalling it via its installer.

Knowing what keylogger is installed on your system is going to be a great help as you can then use specific information to counter that particular keylogger.

8- Bots#

Bots (in the current discussion) are automated malware that performs pre-programmed tasks over and over again.

Malware bots are used to carry out activities like compromising websites, hacking, spamming, spying, etc.

Malware bots are also used by hackers. Here are some common attacks that are carried out using bots:

  • to perform DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks.

A DDoS attack overwhelms the website and server. It causes disruption for legitimate users of the website.

  • commit click fraud (clicking on adverts posing as humans).

Click fraud generally causes harm by impersonating real humans and causing the business to pay for human interaction and clicks when there weren’t any.

  • scanning vulnerabilities on websites, among other mischievous tasks.

These bots can cause your computer to crash randomly without any valid reason. Slowed performance, lagging starting and shutdown times, change in settings, inability to download system updates, are also commonly associated with malware bots.

Once you have determined that your computer is infected by a bot. You should follow these steps:

  • Immediately disconnect your device from the internet. Bots work using the internet. If they have collected information or are doing something nefarious, then they will need to transmit that information across the internet to the hacker.
  • Save important data on your computer on an external storage device. To prevent your data from being lost or compromised, it’s best to have a backup before carrying out a factory reset
  • Conduct a factory reset on your device A factory reset should get rid of any bots on your system.
  • And follow up by running a malware scan. To be sure that any and all bots have been removed from your system, you might want to run a malware scan using anti malware software.

9- Ransomware#

Ransomware is malware that is designed to encrypt a user’s files making the device and data unusable. The hacker then demands for a ransom to disinfect the computer system.

Detecting ransomware will not be an issue since ransomware by design is used to hinder the usability of a device to the user. The user will definitely notice something is wrong when they are unable to access their important files.

One way to remove ransomware from your device is to pay the ransom to the hacker. But this also carries added risk. The hacker might just run away with the money in one scenario.

Another is that the hacker might continue to extort you for even more money and continue to make demands.

Restoring your system to factory settings is your best bet. But you will most likely lose the data present on your device.

It will be best if you make a backup of your data. Exploring disaster recovery options is something that you might want to consider as well if you are a larger enterprise or have sensitive data that needs to be protected.

Avoiding ransomware is then the more preferable route. Do not download resources that are claiming to be free when you know that they are not free resources.

Can Malware Be Removed?#

Yes, malware can be removed from an infected system.

Malware removal is something that everyone should at least have a basic understanding about.

Sure, you should definitely contact experts when things get out of hand, but there are some methods that you can use to remove malware.

There are two prevalent methods that you can use to remove malware from your system.

  • The first method involves scanning your computer manually and identifying files, programs, and system responses to find malware. Once you have found all malicious files and code, you can then move on to removing them on your own.
  • The second method involves using a well-known anti-malware software to scan your system, identify malicious code, and then remove that code from your system.

Most people should go with the second method, as removing malware on your own can cause unwanted or unintended harm to your system.

How To Detect Malware?#

Detecting malware may or may not be tricky.

In most cases, you will definitely have an idea if your system is infected by malware. But here are some things that you should notice if your system is infected with malware.

  • Lack of performance.
  • Unstable system behavior.
  • Weird error messages.
  • System crashes.
  • File encryption.
  • Run a detailed scan.

Lack of performance.

Your system will have slowed down unexpectedly.

Unstable system behavior.

You might notice unfamiliar downloads, a change in system settings.

Weird error messages.

These error messages will be related to system processes that you would have no idea about.

System crashes.

Your system might encounter a blue screen and even crash unpredictably.

File encryption.

Some malware might even encrypt the files present on your system.

Run a detailed scan.

Detailed scans using anti-malware software are your best bet at finding hidden malware present on your device.

What Are The Ways to Prevent Malware?#

When it comes to something as dangerous as malware, preventing malware from infecting your system or network is the best bet.

Most malware makes its way to computer systems because of human error and lapse in judgement. Being mindful of your actions will definitely help you prevent any malicious files from causing your system harm.

Here are some ways that you can use to prevent malware:

[ ] Be attentive. [ ] Avoid fishy emails and websites. [ ] Routine system checks. [ ] Do not let your system be exposed to unknown hardware. [ ] Use a safe internet connection.

How to prevent malware Figure 1. How to prevent malware

Be attentive.

As mentioned above, always be mindful of the actions you take when using a computer system. A lot of malware and loss in performance can be avoided if you are just a bit more careful clicking on buttons online.

Avoid fishy emails and websites.

Emails are a well known way which bad actors use to infect innocent computer users. Avoid opening emails from people that you do not know or from email addresses that look scammy.

Not only should you avoid scam emails, but you should also be mindful of the websites you visit. For starters, make sure that the website uses HTTPS and not HTTP. Remember that even a professional-looking website can be cloaked as a malware distribution point.

Routine system checks

Conducting regular system checks is smart considering people’s online exposure.

Having decent anti-malware software installed on your system and then using it to periodically scan files on your system is a smart thing to do.

Do not let your system be exposed to unknown hardware.

Whether you are at the office or at a casual gathering, only connect trusted hardware to your devices.

Infected hardware can easily infect your system and cause you unwanted distress.

Use a safe internet connection.

Internet is a basic necessity, but this does not mean that you should connect to untrusted internet connections.

Having your own internet device or only using trusted networks is essential if you want to deny entry to malware.

What are the Best Anti-Malware Softwares?#

Anti malware software is specially designed to help rid your computer system of malware.

The majority of antimalware software work by first thoroughly scanning the files present on your system. They then identify potential files that may be causing harm to your computer. The antimalware software then goes on to remove these files from your computer.

When choosing an antimalware software, it is necessary to opt for a reputable provider. Be mindful of the software you install as some malware might even be disguised and cloaked as antimalware.

Here are some of the most reputable and best antimalware software available:

  • Webroot (for mac)
  • Malwarebytes (for windows)
  • Avast (cost effective)
  • Bitdefender (value for money)
  • Norton 360 (comprehensive anti malware solution)

What Are The Malware Examples?#

Malware has been around for a while. In the past, there have been several malware attacks and prompted cybersecurity experts to reduce vulnerabilities and boost security.

We will now be discussing a few malware examples and their impact.

  1. ILOVEYOU
  2. Zeus
  3. Stuxnet
  4. CryptoLocker
  5. WannaCry
  6. CovidLock

Let’s discuss each of these to get a better understanding of the context of how malware becomes such a threat.

ILOVEYOU

ILOVEYOU was a worm malware that was sent via email back in 2000.

45 million people were affected by ILOVEYOU and the estimation of damages is above $15 billion.

Zeus

Zeus was a trojan malware that was primarily used to steal credentials and passwords via keylogging back in 2007.

Its targets were major companies like the Bank of America, Amazon, and Cisco. Estimation for damages is around $100 million.

Stuxnet

Another worm-type malware, Stuxnet was famously used to target the Iranian nuclear program back in 2010.

Stuxnet is special because it was injected through a USB, meaning that there was no need for an internet connection. It exploited the vulnerabilities in the Windows OS.

CryptoLocker

CryptoLocker is a ransomware-type of malware that was released in 2013.

The malware is believed to have been disguised as PDF files and spread through emails. Since it used a large encryption key, experts had to work diligently to find a crack.

WannaCry

Over 200,000 people have been infected with the WannaCry ransomware that first came to light in 2017.

Damages are estimated to have exceeded $4 billion.

Large companies like FedEx, Nissan, had been affected by WannaCry along with universities, hospitals and other essential institutions.

CovidLock

CovidLock sparked widespread outrage when unattentive people downloaded seemingly harmless files that were supposed to inform them more about the coronavirus.

CovidLock is a ransomware that is named after the corona outbreak in 2020 and encrypts the data present on android devices. A ransom of $100 was charged to remove the malware from each infected device.