What is malware + how to prevent malware attacks

A man using a tablet to research how to protect his devices from malware attacks.

Consider this your ultimate guide to malware, including a malware definition and ways to help protect yourself against malware.

Malware is an abbreviated form of “malicious software.” This is software that is specifically designed to gain access to or damage a computer, usually without the knowledge of the owner. 

Originally, technicians created malware for experiments and pranks. Eventually, ill-willed individuals saw it useful for vandalism and the destruction of targeted machines. 

Now, with over 25 million new types of malware registered since the beginning of 2022 alone, there is no better time to step up your malware protection and overall cybersecurity than now. For users of Microsoft's popular operating systems, consider enhancing your protection with Norton's antivirus for Windows 10 and Windows 11. Use this ultimate guide to understand how malware works, the different types of malware seen on the internet, and malware attack prevention tips that can help keep your personal information and devices safe.

How does malware work?

Norton malware attacks explained

The process of malware making its way onto your device is relatively simple:

  1. A hacker strategically places a malicious link, file, or attachment in front of their victim, potentially as a phishing email via social engineering tactics.
  2. The victim clicks on the infected asset, unknowingly triggering the malware to install onto their device.
  3. The malware proceeds to steal, compromise, and/or destroy sensitive data stored on the device. 

But some cybercriminals like to use USB sticks and flash drives to spread malware because it’s harder for system 
to detect infections that way. To avoid this tactic, never insert unfamiliar storage devices into your computer.

Keep in mind that there are a ton of things you can do to protect yourself from hackers’ devious schemes, starting with learning about the types of malware they like to use.

10 types of malware 

There are various types of malware lurking online. Here are 10 of the most common types of malware seen on the internet:

  • Malware viruses: Dangerous pieces of code inserted into a program or application and often triggered by victims themselves.
  • Worm malware: Malware infections are designed to replicate themselves and use system flaws to make their way onto devices.
  • Trojan malware: Malicious threats that imitate legitimate applications or programs to get victims to download and unknowingly install malware.
  • Ransomware: Malware that can lock, encrypt, and destroy personal files once it’s installed.
  • Botnets: Spider-like programs that crawl the internet looking for security flaws to exploit.
  • Adware: Malicious software that displays unwanted pop-ups that can track your browsing activity.
  • Spyware: A type of malware that tracks and records user activity in secret.
  • Rootkits: Malware that can grant hackers complete remote access to a victim’s device.
  • Fileless malware: Malware using protocols and software already built into operating systems to infect devices.
  • Malvertising: Ads infected with malware designed to install onto your device after you click on a displayed popup. 

Don’t let these malware attacks eat away at your sense of security online. There are a number of red flags you can look out to help spot different malware threats.

Malware attack warning signs 

Keep your guard up as you browse online by keeping these malware attack warning signs top of mind.

Slower operating system 

If you notice a dramatic slowdown in your computer’s speed, that may be a sign malware found its way on your device. You may also notice screen freezing, unexplained restarts, and random Wi-Fi disconnects. 

Keep in mind, not all computers experiencing slower systems have malware infections. Sometimes a lack of storage can have an effect on your device’s operating system. 

Unexpected crashes  

Some system crashes have a root cause, like incompatible software or power issues. However, there are some instances where malware could be at play. If system crashes become constant, even with applications you know work for your computer, there is a chance it’s suffering from a malware infection.

Pop-ups and security warnings 

Pop-up ads annoy a lot of online users — which is why many browsers come with pop-up blockers pre-installed. That’s why if you see a flood of pop-ups come to your screen, you’ll know that they're likely ridden with malware. Hackers use these malicious ads and spyware to track your online activity.

Ransom demands 

Ransom demands displayed on your computer screen are a sure sign that your computer has malware on it. Hackers use different types of ransomware to take advantage of a person’s private information to make a profit for themselves.

Diminished storage space 

Dramatic changes in your computer’s storage capacity could be a sign that your device is hosting dangerous malware.

Little to no space could mean that malicious software was able to compromise multiple files, as malware expands as it goes deeper into your system. An excess of space may indicate that the malware was able to complete its work since some infectionscan delete important files and software.

Suspicious network traffic 

A cybersecurity trick many people use is monitoring their network traffic for signs of suspicious activity. If you shut down all your connected devices and still see continued activity, a hacker may have snuck malware onto one of yourdevices. 

Browser redirects 

Though not every redirect is dangerous, there are some browser redirects that could lead you to potentially harmful websites. For instance, hackers can create browser extensions designed to automatically redirect you to their malware-infectedsites. They’ll use these to collect and record your personal data.

Knowing the signs of unsecured websites can help you identify this malware attack tactic. That includes watching out for:

  • Suspicious URL differences
  • “Http” not locat       
  • Negative reviews
  • Unsolicited pop-ups

Disabled antivirus software 

Hackers are smart enough to know that most people equip their devices with some type of malware protection. Their workaround was designing malware that can disable antivirus software or other types of security extensions that alertusers of potential threats. 

If you find these tools disabled on your computer, check to see if your device shows other signs of infection, such as a slower operating system and limited storage space.

Contacts receiving strange messages from you 

If your friends start to ask you about strange messages you’re sending them (other than the occasional meme), then your personal phone number or email may be in the hands of a cybercriminal. Hackers might be using your  trusted phone numbers and stolen contacts to send phishing emails and spam texts to your contacts.

6 malware protection tips 

How to prevent malware attacks

Beyond knowing what you should be looking out for, there are several things you can do on your own to keep your devices and personal information safe.

1. Update operating systems regularly

It’s important to make a habit of checking your devices for software updates on a regular basis. As mentioned, hackers often use botnets and other types of malware to expose zero-day exploits to compromise your devices and network.

2. Beware of suspicious links and attachments

Keeping an eye out for suspicious links and attachments may help prevent a malware attack from sneaking its way on your computer. These could look like URLs that don’t quite resemble what you’re used to seeing or email attachments from unknown senders. Cybercriminals love using these in addition to phishing emails and social engineering tactics to trick users into handing over their private information.

3. Consider an ad-blocker

Cyberthieves may use popups infused with spyware and/or adware to illegally track your network activity and install malware onto your device. To help prevent these kinds of malware attacks, consider downloading an ad- blocker. This cybersecurity tool helps keep malicious advertisements from appearing on your screen — and, in turn, keeps you from clicking on them. 

4. Enable two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication comes in handy if a cybercriminal is able to access your login credentials. Biometric security features like fingerprint scanning and facial recognition make proving your identity a must before you can fully access your account. And since hackers probably won’t be able to replicate your DNA and/or facial structure, they’ll likely hit an obstacle to access.

5. Monitor your network

Users can turn to their network activity to see if they’re potentially dealing with a malware infection. If you notice unfamiliar IP addresses taking up a large amount of your usage, a hacker could be trying to compromise the data on your devices.

6. Download antivirus software

Trusted antivirus software could help provide your devices with 24/7 protection against the malware attacks threatening your Cyber Safety. Often equipped with password managers and threat detection software, security software could help you browse more confidently knowing you have the right cybersecurity tools working to keep you safe.

Malware is one of the original cyberthreats, which means we've been able to learn a lot about cyberattackers' tactics and can use that against them. Use these malware protection tips and warning signs to stay ahead of hackers and boost  your malware security.

Malware FAQs 

Check out some of the most commonly asked questions about malware to help protect against malware attacks.

How do I remove malware? 

Steps for removing malware may vary depending on your device. If you have a Mac® computer, you may be able to remove malware by taking these steps:

  1. Disconnect from the internet.
  2. Enter safe mode.
  3. Check your activity for suspicious applications.
  4. Run a malware scanner.
  5. Verify your browser’s homepage.
  6. Clear your cache. 

PC users can remove malware from their devices by taking these steps:

  1. Disconnect from the internet.
  2. Enter safe mode.
  3. Check your activity monitor for malicious applications.
  4. Run a malware scanner.
  5. Fix your web browser.
  6. Clear your cache. 

What are 4 examples of malware? 

Four examples of malware include:

  1. Viruses.
  2. Worms.
  3. Trojans.
  4. Ransomware.

How do I know if I have malware? 

There are several malware warning signs that indicate you might have malware: 

  • Unexpected crashes.
  • Pop-ups and security warnings.
  • Ransom demands.
  • Diminished storage space.
  • Suspicious network traffic.
  • Browser redirects.
  • Disabled antivirus software.
  • Contacts receiving strange messages from you.

Is malware a virus? 

Malware is a term used to encompass many types of malicious software, which includes viruses and other types of cyberattacks.

Can malware spread through Wi-Fi? 

Yes, malware can use Wi-Fi and other wired, wireless, and/or Bluetooth connections to spread and infiltrate devices.

How do I find hidden malware? 

Use antivirus software to identify malware that may be hiding on your personal computer or other devices.

How do I know if I have malware on my phone? 

There are a several signs that your phone may have malware:

  • Apps you never downloaded.
  • Decrease in speed.
  • Longer start-up times for apps.
  • Suspicious data usage.
  • Uncontrollable popup ads.

Cyber threats have evolved, and so have we.

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Clare Stouffer
  • Clare Stouffer
  • Gen employee
Clare Stouffer, a Gen employee, is a writer and editor for the company’s blogs. She covers various topics in cybersecurity.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Our offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about Cyber Safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses. The Norton and LifeLock brands are part of Gen Digital Inc. 


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