Malware is one of the top threats facing all of us as we live more of our lives online. Just hearing the word malware may make you uneasy. But knowledge is power! In this guide, I‘ll walk you through the most common malware attacks and share pro tips to avoid them.
Whether you‘re a long-time computer user or just got your first laptop, this information will help you protect your devices and data. By learning about these cybersecurity villains and how to outsmart them, you can confidently explore the digital world. Read on to demystify malware and pick up some best practices along the way!
What exactly is malware?
Malware refers to malicious software created by cybercriminals to compromise computer systems. It‘s designed to access devices or networks secretly to steal data, take control of operations, or cause damage. Malware comes in many shapes and sizes, including viruses, worms, Trojans, ransomware, spyware, adware, and more.
Here are a few alarming malware statistics:
There were over 850 million malware attacks in the first half of 2022 alone, according to SonicWall.
Small businesses experienced an average of 12 cyberattacks per month in 2022, per US Bank.
Ransomware damages cost an estimated $20 billion globally in 2021, per Cybereason.
Human error accounts for 95% of successful cyberattacks, highlights IBM. This shows why understanding malware risks is so important.
The bottom line is that malware can seriously disrupt people‘s digital lives and businesses. But let‘s not give these cyber grinches too much power! By learning their tricks, you can spot malware activities and stop them in their tracks.
9 common malware types and how to identify them
Now let‘s dive into some of the most widespread malware families threatening networks today. I‘ll provide recent examples and key traits to help you recognize different malware types.
You may have heard about ransomware in the news lately. These attacks encrypt important files on a system until a ransom is paid. Recent victims include the city of Baltimore, giant meatpacker JBS Foods, and the trusty Tasmanian health system.
The number of ransomware attacks skyrocketed 151% globally in 2021 alone, per SonicWall. Damages from ransomware now exceed over $20 billion per year across impacted businesses, according to Cybereason.
Ransomware typically spreads through phishing emails and insecure Remote Desktop Protocol connections. Once inside a system, it locates critical data like documents, databases, and backups to encrypt. Victims receive a ransom note demanding payment, usually untraceable cryptocurrency, in return for the decryption key.
GandCrab, Ryuk, Maze, REvil, and Conti rank among the most widespread ransomware strains today. Ransomware gangs are getting bolder, targeting organizations like hospitals, schools, and critical infrastructure. But many infections start through a single employee falling for a phishing scam.
2. Trojan horses
You guessed it – Trojans disguise themselves as helpful programs to trick their way into systems. A Trojan may masquerade as a free game, media app, document editor, or other software to entice unwitting users into installing it.
Trojans often operate as backdoors to give attackers remote control over the compromised computer. They may also distribute ransomware payloads, steal data, or download additional malicious software.
According to IBM research, Trojans cause over half of all data breaches today. Prominent examples like Emotet, NetWire, and Qakbot infect populations of users by hiding in email attachments or compromised websites.
Once inside your system, Trojans can monitor activity through screen recording, turn on your webcam, or capture sensitive data entered through keylogging. Regular software updates and caution around downloads are key to avoiding Trojans.
3. Fileless malware
Fileless malware is a new form of attack that runs without installing any malicious files on the infected system. Instead, it accomplishes its dirty work by manipulating and piggybacking on legitimate system tools.
For example, fileless malware may hijack trusted operating system processes like PowerShell or use scripts and macros to carry out an attack. By not needing traditional executable files, fileless malware can sneak right past standard antivirus defenses.
Major cyber incidents like the 2018 Olympic Destroyer attack that disrupted the Winter Olympics leveraged fileless techniques. Other examples include Kovter, DNSMessenger, and Poweliks.
IBM estimates over 77% of successful malware attacks used fileless techniques in 2022. Since no files are written to disk, fileless malware leaves very little trace of activity. This makes it incredibly challenging for antivirus software to detect.
As the name suggests, the purpose of spyware is to spy on you! Spyware secretly gathers data about your computing activities, usually without you realizing it. It can capture everything from your keystrokes and screenshots to your webcam video and microphone recordings.
Spyware often sneaks onto devices bundled with free software downloads. It may also arrive through phishing emails or by exploiting vulnerabilities in browsers or apps. Once activated, spyware can monitor your every digital move using tactics like keylogging, screen recording, accessing your camera and files, or tracking your location.
Some infamous examples include Pegasus, which infiltrated iOS and Android mobile devices, and Predator, used to target journalists, dissidents, and criminals worldwide. In 2021, spyware attacks increased over 200% with spike in remote work according to Atlas VPN.
Adware may seem more annoyance than threat at first. But these programs hijack your web browsing experience to bombard you with a barrage of ads. Clicking these intrusive ads can expose you to phishing sites or additional malware downloads.
According to Avast, over 4.6 million malicious adware attacks hit users every month in 2021. Adware often sneaks onto your device bundled with otherwise legitimate freeware installs. Compromised sites may also embed adware directly into web pages.
Once installed, adware tracks your web activity to serve up targeted, unwanted ads based on your browsing data. Well-known adware programs include Fairshare, Shopperz, and bundle-ware toolbars for software like Skype and Flash.
Bots provide attackers with backdoor access and remote control over the devices they infect. Large networks of compromised bots, called botnets, are used for destructive cyber attacks and scams.
Bot herders control their bots through command-and-control (C2) servers, issuing instructions for activities like distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, sending spam emails, or harvesting sensitive data.
By Q2 2022, cybersecurity firm NetScout already tracked over 5 million daily active bots across thousands of powerful botnets. One notorious example, the Mirai IoT botnet, took down major portions of the internet in the massive 2016 DDoS attack against Dyn.
In addition to DDoS and spam campaigns, bots may steal credentials, spread to other vulnerable systems, and download additional malware payloads. Well-known bots like Asprox, Gafgyt, and Necurs pose continued threats today.
7. Information stealers
As you can probably guess, information stealers are designed to sneakily steal sensitive data from compromised systems. This includes login credentials, financial details, intellectual property, healthcare records, and personally identifiable information.
By scraping data from memory, files, databases, and even cloud accounts, information stealers can harvest valuable data to sell on underground dark web markets and forums.
According to Interpol, over 80% of data breaches start with stolen credentials. Malware like Agent Tesla, LokiBot, and Azorult specialize in credential and information theft. Advanced stealers like Vidar and Raccoon bypass multi-factor authentication too.
The impact of data breaches and theft can be severe for businesses and consumers. But safe browsing, complex passwords, and encryption help deter data stealers.
Also known as disk or drive wipers, these destructive malware strains are designed to completely erase files, data, and even the operating system‘s bootloader itself. The goal is to inflict maximum damage through permanent data destruction and denial of service.
The most famous wiper, Stuxnet, was a sophisticated state-sponsored attack that destroyed uranium enrichment centrifuges in Iran‘s nuclear program in 2010. More recently, the Shamoon attacks crippled over 30,000 systems at Saudi Aramco oil operations in 2016.
Wipers like StoneDrill, ZeroCleare, and AcidRain often target critical infrastructure organizations across finance, telecoms, and energy. Along with data destruction, they may overwrite the master boot record to prevent system recovery.
Regular offline backups and hardware/software redundancy is key to surviving a destructive wiper attack. Quick isolation and recovery steps also help limit damage.
Rootkits allow privileged, stealthy system access by masking malware activity from monitoring and security tools. They burrow into the deepest levels of a system, modifying the core code of the operating system to hide malicious processes, network connections, files, and registry entries.
By modifying kernel operations, rootkits can deceive security scanners by presenting phony benign information. Advanced rootkits can even survive operating system reinstalls and reboots.
According to Microsoft, rootkits accounted for over 20% of all malware infections among enterprises in 2022. Prominent examples include Alureon, which compromised millions of Windows systems globally, and kernel-mode payloads used by spyware vendors.
Removing rootkits poses a major challenge since they conceal themselves even from antivirus scans. Reformatting infected drives may be necessary for cleanup.
12 tips to avoid malware attacks
Now that you know about common malware strains, here are some key precautions you can take to avoid infections:
1. Update, update, update
One of the best defenses is to regularly update your operating systems, software, browsers, drivers, plugins, and firmware. Updates patch security vulnerabilities that malware exploits. Enable auto-updates wherever possible or schedule regular reminder checks.
2. Strengthen passwords
Using weak, reused passwords across accounts is asking for trouble. Cybercriminals love guessing easy passwords and testing usernames and passwords stolen in data breaches. Use randomly generated passwords and a password manager app can make this easier.
3. Verify email authenticity
Think before clicking! Over 90% of malware infections start with a phishing email or message. Check the sender‘s address for authenticity and be cautious before downloading attachments or clicking embedded links, especially from unknown senders.
4. Avoid suspicious sites
Stick to well-known, legitimate websites to lower your malware risk. Watch for subtle misspellings or site certificate warnings that could indicate a compromised domain. Never download programs from questionable sites.
5. Install security software
Reliable endpoint security software like Norton Security or Bitdefender Antivirus can block malware and remove infections across PCs, Macs, smartphones, and tablets. Look for advanced features like web filtering, firewalls, anti-ransomware, and email protection.
6. Back up your data
Preserve copies of your important documents, photos, and other personal data on disconnected external drives using the 3-2-1 rule. This ensures you have backups available to restore if ransomware or malware corrupts your original files.
7. Disable unneeded features
Minimize your attack surface by disabling unused browser add-ons, software features, services, guest accounts, and network ports that you don‘t require. Malware often exploits unused attention-grabbing features left enabled by default.
8. Avoid risky sites
Steer clear of potentially dangerous websites and ads that are common malware vectors. Specifically avoid illegal streaming sites, torrents, unfamiliar online ads, adult content, and pirated software that cybercriminals target.
9. Secure accounts
Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) on important accounts like email, banking, and social media to block takeovers even if passwords are compromised. MFA adds an extra verification step using codes sent your phone or app.
10. Isolate sensitive systems
For businesses, isolate systems handling financial data, healthcare records, intellectual property, and other sensitive information on quarantined network segments with restricted access. This limits malware spread.
11. Educate employees
Train staff through real-world phishing attack simulations to improve malware threat awareness. Teach employees to vigilantly avoid suspicious links and report possible infections early to your IT team.
12. Monitor emerging threats
Keep up with the latest malware developments, ongoing campaigns, and cybercrime trends by following threat reports. Take prompt action to address emerging malware strains targeting your region or industry.
The bottom line on malware
Malware remains one of the top cybersecurity threats facing our personal and professional digital lives today. However, by learning about prominent malware types and following cyber hygiene best practices, you can avoid the vast majority of attacks.
The key takeaways are:
Use strong passwords, enable MFA, update diligently, and backup your data.
Beef up protection with quality endpoint security software and services.
Exercise extreme caution with emails and websites to stop infections at the gate.
Monitor your systems and watch for signs like slowness or pop-ups that could indicate malware.
Report odd behavior and update defenses against new emerging malware threats.
No single solution can protect against all malware, but this guide outlined steps to significantly lower your risk online. By staying vigilant and protecting your devices, you can confidently explore the digital world and keep the cyber grinches at bay. Here‘s to safe browsing – let‘s stay malware-free out there!