How to tell if you may have malware and what features to look for in strong malware protection

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Malware — short for malicious software — refers to programs specifically engineered to compromise computers or other devices. Malware can present itself in many forms such as viruses, Trojan horses, worms, adware, ransomware and spyware. All forms of malware are designed to compromise the safety of your devices and the data stored on them. This might allow cybercriminals to access your personal data and, in some cases, use that data to commit identity theft.

Does this sound like something you want to avoid? You’re not alone. Nobody wants malware on their computer. Learning to be proactive about your computer’s security and having strong malware protection is a smart way to avoid a malware intrusion

Here’s a look at a few red flags that can indicate a malware problem.

Possible signs of malware infection

The presence of malware sometimes is obvious, even though you might not know how it got on your device. A lot of people have no idea that malware has been installed until their computers or devices start acting abnormally.

Symptoms of malware may appear obvious or discrete. Knowing how to detect these dangerous intrusions can help you determine how to fix the issue.

You might notice changes to the behavior of your computer or device, such as strange ads or pop-up windows — even when you’re not surfing the web. You may also notice unwanted changes to your browsers’ behavior and changes to its homepage, a slower overall experience on your computer, and a sudden lack of storage space.

Watch out for ads that pop up a few seconds after a webpage is done loading. These ads sometimes contain inappropriate content. They might display flashing colors and be difficult to close, while blocking what you’re trying to view.

How did I get malware?

Malware is usually installed unintentionally after the user has taken missteps.

For instance, malware can be installed accidentally by clicking on a malicious link and can be hidden or masked by other software. This often happens when you download content from unknown or untrustworthy sources. Seemingly harmless downloads, like screen savers, toolbars, and torrents, may be likely suspects.

Another reason you might find malware on your computer? It could be because your antivirus software or anti-malware software, operating systems, or other programs on your computer and other connected devices are out of date. Updating security features is just as important as having them in the first place, so you’ll need to have the latest security protection in place. If you don’t have quality antivirus or security software installed on your computer and devices, or if you don't keep it running the most recent security updates and virus definitions, you could be at risk of malware intrusion.

Malware protection: How to avoid malware

Computer security should begin with strong, reliable antivirus and anti-malware software. It’s smart to make this a priority on your home computer and any other devices you may have. Installing security software is one of the best things you can to do to avoid malware infections.

Be sure to run periodic diagnostic scans with your antivirus or anti-malware software. You can set it up so the program runs scans automatically during regular intervals. Configure your settings to run a malware detection scan at least once a week, preferably at night when the computer is less likely to be in use to avoid interruptions.

What else can you do? It’s a good idea to be aware of your behavior online. Personal education is one of your first lines of defense against malware.

For example, always be wary of emails from unknown sources — often called phishing emails. If your gut tells you something looks suspicious or unfamiliar, don’t click on embedded links, documents, or photos.

Another tip: help keep your personal information safe with encryption. That’s the process of helping protect personal data by using a “secret code” to scramble the data you send and receive from your devices so that it can’t be read by anyone who doesn’t have the code key.

You can also use a firewall, either on the modem or each computer, and be sure to protect each of your online accounts with a unique, complex password.

Stay proactive with your cyber security and be vigilant while using the internet. These are some of the best ways to help ensure malware protection across your devices.

9 key features of strong anti-malware protection

Your second line of protection against malware is to install a strong anti-malware software program. That’s because even if you’re vigilant with robust passwords and cautious about your downloads, malware can sometimes still take hold. Even downloads from seemingly reputable websites or known senders could have malware embedded.

But it doesn’t stop there. All security software products are not created the same. Different anti-malware programs protect at different levels, and free malware protection is often inadequate. Here are a few of our top recommendations for features to look for when deciding on the right anti-malware security software for your needs.

1. Regular program checks

A key feature of any anti-malware software you consider should be that it runs checks on all newly downloaded programs to ensure they don’t contain viruses or other types of malicious software. One form of malware is ransomware, which can allow a cybercriminal to encrypt and steal the data stored on your device. Cybercriminals may demand a ransom to decrypt and restore access your device; however, there's no guarantee you’ll get your data back, even if you pay the ransom.

How do you get ransomware? You may install ransomware unwittingly by downloading a program you thought was safe, or clicking on a link embedded with malware.

2. Computer scans 

Robust anti-malware software such as Norton Security will run regular, scheduled scans across your whole computer. These scans will help provide an additional layer of protection against malware harming your system by checking for infections on a regular basis. If you do end up with a virus, you can use the free Norton Power Eraser to help remove malware.

3. Software updates 

With new types of malware surfacing regularly, it’s critical that your anti-malware program can be configured to run updates automatically. These updates will equip your devices with the latest patches to recognize and protect against new threats.

4. Scans of suspicious websites

Your anti-malware software should detect and flag suspicious websites. For example, some fake websites are specifically designed to look like real sites with the goal of phishing, or tricking you into sharing your passwords or account numbers.

5. Spam-filtering technology

A strong anti-malware program should use email spam-filtering technology to help protect against suspicious messages that try to entice a user to click on malicious links. Part of this filtering involves isolating these potentially malicious emails in quarantine, which then allows you to determine if those messages are safe.

6. Heuristics

Another form of anti-malware analysis is known as heuristics. Heuristics can spot malware by looking at its behavior and characteristics as opposed to relying only on its knowledge of malware definitions, or signatures. Heuristics can provide an extra layer of security by enabling an anti-malware program to detect and eradicate threats that were not detected in prior scans.

7. Sandboxing

If your security software detects a potentially-malicious program, it can perform a test by running that program in a protected, enclosed space on your computer known as a sandbox. If the suspicious program is determined to be malicious, your anti-malware software should be capable of removing it.

8. Password and account management

Another key feature you should look for in a strong anti-malware software is safeguarding your online account information. Password management tools will help ensure your passwords are strong — and that you aren’t neglectful in creating them. Some password managers will also help you create passwords that are unique and complex, and then store them — along with sensitive data such as your credit card or other account information — in an encrypted online vault.

9. Usability

An anti-malware program’s usability is a less obvious but important feature. Antivirus software programs should be easy to install and use. If the process is difficult, you might not install them correctly or use them regularly and effectively.

Cybercriminals have many reasons for attempting to install malware on unsuspecting devices, such as accessing your personal information, passwords, banking credentials, and other private data. What can you do to help protect yourself? Be vigilant in your online activity. Install reputable anti-malware security software. These are important proactive steps you can take that can help secure your devices, reputation, finances, and identity.

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