Definitions of Malware, Spyware, and Viruses, and 15 Signs of a Possible Computer Infection
There are a variety of things that can negatively affect your computer and cause it to operate in unexpected ways, seemingly lose files or delete programs, fail to load certain applications, or even suffer a complete crash of the operating system. Those byte-sized technological troublemakers are often referred to as viruses or malware, along with many other names, but what do those names really mean?
What is malware?
Malware means ‘malicious software,’ and is the broad name of programs and applications that are intended to cause damage to a computer or computing device like a tablet, laptop, or even a smartphone. Some of the damage caused by malware is not directly harmful, meaning that it does not disable features or programs on your computer, destroy files, or cause a system failure. Despite this, it still performs unwanted actions without the user’s consent, and often without their knowledge. Some of the more common and well-known types of malware are adware, spyware, and viruses.
Adware, which is actually a sub-type of spyware, is ‘advertising software’ that will randomly display advertising content when a computer is in use, whether the user is actively using the internet or not. The adware often uses pop-up windows to display this advertising material, and some of the windows are designed to repetitively self-replicate (a series of several pop-up windows that appear all at once) or are unable to be closed by the user. Some types of adware are legitimate marketing tools for businesses that sell products or services online, and the advertising pop-ups are intended to entice you to visit the company’s web-based content to find out more about what they are selling. Other types of adware, however, are often used to collect marketing data about users without their permission.
Spyware, or ‘spying software,’ is a type of malware that can be defined several different ways. According to Kaspersky Labs, a globally recognized company that provides anti-virus and cybersecurity software and services, there is no textbook definition of spyware. In general, spyware is software installed on your computer without your permission that can search your computer’s files for personal data, like bank account details or passwords, or collect information about your computer and internet usage habits, and report the data to a third party. As mentioned in the paragraph about adware, spyware can also install advertising programs on your computer that randomly display marketing messages, or it can be used to monitor (and report to a third party about) your online browsing and shopping activities.
Unlike other types of malware, viruses are almost always designed to be intentionally harmful to your computer. This type of malware is called a ‘virus’ because of the way it is programmed to replicate itself and spread – either to other areas of your computer or to another computer that is connected to yours in some way. They are also hard to find and often hard to eradicate. Computer viruses can also be known by other names, like a trojan horse or worm. These alternate names still refer to a virus, but they often give an indicator of how that particular virus functions. For example, a trojan horse virus is one that is concealed within a legitimate file or program and is coded to begin infecting a computer at a specific time or when a certain user-initiated event has occurred. As mentioned, viruses are designed to cause damage which can include deleting files, disabling programs, or causing an operating system failure.
How can you tell if your computer has been infected with malware?
Now that you know a bit more about the different kinds of pests that can invade and infect a computer, how do you know when one of them has found its way onto yours? Here are 15 signs that your computer may have inadvertently become infected with malware:
- When your computer starts functioning more slowly. This is usually seen in how long it takes programs or applications to open, files to load, or the system itself to respond to your commands.
- Sudden crashes or shut-downs of programs or your computer’s operating system itself. The infamous ‘blue screen of death’ is generally a tell-tale sign of a malware infection.
- A change in the home page for your internet browser, which can indicate that your browser has been ‘hijacked.’
- New toolbars or added features on your internet browser.
- New files or programs that have been added to your computer or desktop display.
- Advertising content that randomly appears, or rapidly pops up in a series of windows, whether you are using the internet or not. While it might be legitimate marketing material, a clear sign of a malware infection is if these pop-up windows cannot be closed.
- Emails that have been sent without your consent or knowledge, especially ones that contain downloadable files or clickable links within the email message.
- Messages that have been posted to your social media accounts or sent to friends and followers that you did not create and send yourself.
- Notification messages that indicate an error with a particular program, function, or feature.
- Warning messages from anti-virus or security programs that you do not regularly use or have not installed on your computer.
- Internet activity, as shown on the activity indicator of your modem or router, especially when you are not using the internet. Almost all internet service providers today are using password-protected wireless connectivity. This means you should not see internet activity unless you or someone in your home – with direct, wired access to your router or password access to your WiFi – is currently using the internet.
- Hard drive activity on your computer when you are not using it. This is indicated by the hard drive light on the front of your computer and it flashes rapidly or stays constantly lit when there is activity on the hard drive.
- Inability to access your Control Panel or other settings and features that control the primary functionality of your computer.
- If icons for programs and applications on your main display are missing or moved around.
- Any other unexpected or unusual behavior. While this may not always indicate the presence of malware, it is a good idea to have your computer checked for the presence of potential issues if your computer starts operating in a way that is not typical or normal.
If you suspect the presence of malware on your computer, even if all it is doing is displaying an unwelcome advertising pop-up here and there, you should take steps to get rid of it immediately. If one malicious program can infect your computer, so can another – and it only takes one to do serious damage to the files, programs, and critical components of your operating system.
You can find tutorials on how to eradicate computer malware in many places online, but if you are not technologically savvy, or if you just want to make sure the problem has really been removed, you should take your computer to a professional as soon as possible. They can quickly identify the malicious invader and remove all traces of it from your system before it can do irreparable damage. To keep your computer protected against malware in the future, keep in mind that the best defense is a good offense. Make sure you have an effective anti-virus program installed on your computer to identify and remove malicious programs before they can begin their quest to cripple your system’s functionality.