Do Macs get viruses and malware?


Apple computers can get viruses and malware just like PCs can. While MacBooks, Mac Minis, and iPhones may not be as frequent targets, all have their fair share of threats.

Can a Mac computer get a virus? Can hackers infect it with malware? The short answer? Absolutely. The longer one? While cybercriminals still target Windows-based computers more often, this doesn’t mean that your Mac desktops, laptops, tablets and your iPhones are immune from malware, spyware, adware, and other viruses.

Apple computers can get hit with viruses and malware just like PCs. The big difference is that iMacs, MacBooks, Mac Minis, and iPhones are not targeted for these cyberattacks nearly as often as are Windows computers. 

That doesn’t mean that you can get complacent if you use a Mac. Adware, spyware, ransomware, and hardware and software vulnerabilities are threats to Mac users, just as they are to those relying on Windows-based computers.

Overall, the amount of malware for macOS dropped 38 percent in 2020 from a record-high level in 2019, according to a Malwarebytes report. The security company said potentially unwanted programs, also known as PUPs, accounted for 76 percent of the malware detections. Adware followed at 22 percent. 

Do Macs need antivirus software? The short answer is, it can help.

4 types of Apple viruses — and a vulnerability

Apple viruses can range from annoying to outright damaging. Our guide on removing viruses and malware from Macs can help you solve the problem. 

1. Adware on Macs

Adware is a potentially unwanted program that can bombard users with advertising pop-ups. Sometimes these ads are so intrusive, and pop up so frequently, that they make it impossible for you to use your device.

Some adware works in conjunction with spyware, a type of software that can spy on and record everything you do online. This gives snoops the chance to spy on the emails you send, the websites you visit and the passwords and usernames you enter when accessing your online credit card portals or bank accounts. This can cause you plenty of financial pain.

If your Mac product is hit with adware, be careful. Never click on the ads that start filling your screen. Pop-up ads often lead users to malicious websites that deliver data-stealing spyware onto their Macs. Adware can also send information back to a third-party server. This information could be used to commit crimes, such as identity theft, fraud, or even extortion.

Although they’re not malicious, even benign pop-up ads can be extremely annoying and intrusive.

2. Trojan horses on Macs

Trojan horses are common to both Macs and PCs. This type of malware comes disguised as a legitimate program that cybercriminals trick you into downloading on your computer. You might receive an email that is supposedly from your bank or cable provider. The message might say that your account will be shut down if you don't click on a link. When you click on the link, malware is installed on your device.

One notable Apple computer Trojan horse was found in February of 2017. Dubbed “MacDownloader,” it was malicious software hiding in a fake Adobe Flash update.

The MacDownloader is a good example of how Trojan horses work. This malware was a form of spyware used to steal personal data, including the users’ keychains, which store usernames, passwords, PINs, credit card numbers, and more.

3. Macro viruses on Macs

Microsoft Word macro viruses have been around for a long time, mainly affecting PCs, but eventually jumping over to the Mac OS.

Macro viruses go to work when a user opens an infected file with macros enabled. The macro then tries to run a code that could perform functions such as taking screenshots and even accessing webcams.

Macro viruses can create new files, corrupt data, move text, send files, format hard drives, and insert pictures. Cybercriminals can also use them to deliver destructive viruses and malware.

4. Ransomware on Macs

Ransomware has generated plenty of headlines. In these attacks, hackers infect computers with a virus that locks the machines. They then send a ransom note to victims, demanding money, often in the form of Bitcoin, before they’ll send a code that victims can use to unlock their computers.

Criminals have launched ransomware attacks on individuals, big companies and government bodies. And in 2016, they hit Macs, too. KeRanger was one of the first significant ransomware outbreaks for Macs, hitting more than 7,000 Mac users. The virus infected computers from an installer for Transmission, a BitTorrent client.

Macs can have software and hardware vulnerabilities, too

Software and hardware vulnerabilities can affect all devices, no matter who makes them. You may have heard of a major vulnerability in 2018 dubbed Meltdown and Spectre. 

This malware infected the processor chips of PCs and Macs. This hardware vulnerability then allowed programs to steal data that was being processed on the computers’ chips.

What was stolen? The theft included passwords stored in password managers or browsers, emails, personal documents, photos, and instant message. This information remained vulnerable until the right software patches were released and installed.

The lesson is clear: Just because you are working on a Mac, doesn’t mean that you are protected from viruses, malware and software and hardware vulnerabilities.

How to tell if your Mac has a virus

If your Mac is behaving oddly, it might have a virus. Strange activity, applications “lagging” when you open them, a sudden influx of pop-up ads and your browser’s homepage suddenly changing are all warning signs that your Mac might be infected.

1. Ads and pop-ups are popping up often

This could be a sign of adware. Being bombarded with a slew of advertisements every time you perform an action on your computer should be a signal that it’s time to run a virus scan. Warning signs might include an unusual number of banner ads that pop up on your screen or fake pop-ups that recommend updates to your computer.

2. Your computer is slow

Mac users are familiar with what is referred to as the “spinning wheel of death.” This happens when the cursor turns into a rainbow wheel. This is a sign of a sluggish computer, with that little wheel a sign that your Mac is working overtime trying to do too many things at once. When this happens, it could mean there’s a malicious program running in the background that you might not know about.

3. You have browser issues

Did your browser suddenly change its homepage to something you’ve never seen before? If your browser is unresponsive, or starts crashing regularly, you might have a virus.

4. Nothing at all

That may sound odd, but it’s true. Cybercriminals like installing malware that runs quietly in the background. This makes it more difficult for users to detect. This is why installing strong antivirus software is crucial for Macs, as it can detect, and eliminate, threats that would otherwise sneak past you.

Do Macs need antivirus software?

Antivirus software is like auto or homeowners’ insurance. You might not need it all the time, but when trouble comes calling, you’ll be glad you have it.

While it’s true that Macs have historically been considered less vulnerable to malware attacks than PCs, there are still significant threats out there.

Adding an extra layer of device protection with trusted security software is one way to help keep your Mac device free of viruses, spyware, adware and other malicious programs.

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Alison Grace Johansen
  • Alison Grace Johansen
  • Freelance writer
Alison Grace Johansen is a freelance writer who covers cybersecurity and consumer topics. Her background includes law, corporate governance, and publishing.

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