What Is Malware?

Find out about malware and how to avoid it with anti-malware and antivirus programs.

Malware, short for malicious software, is software used or created by hackers to disrupt a computer's operation. Sometimes, malware is also used to steal important, private, or sensitive data or information or to gain access to private computer networks or online accounts.

Malware includes computer viruses, Trojan horses, adware, spyware, rootkits, ransomware, and other types of malicious files or processes. 

When a user goes on to the internet to download files or programs, they may actually be downloading these computer viruses, Trojans, or rootkits to their PC unknowingly. Once a malware application is downloaded, it can cause all sorts of computer problems and even result in the loss or theft of private or sensitive information.

What does malware do?

Various types of malware perform different malicious tasks that range from just slowing down your computer to replacing your web browser's start page to allowing hackers to control your system remotely. Other times, malware that highjacks a browser may display webpages or advertisements designed to profit the creator of the malicious software.

Some malware, such as Trojans or rootkits, may even lock you out of your own computer and pass over control of the system to a hacker or criminal living far away. Once a hacker has control of your system, they may use the access to steal confidential or sensitive files from your system or even use your computer to hack or infect others.

Oftentimes, hackers or criminals use Trojan horse malware or rootkits to access sensitive documents or files containing banking details, credit card numbers, personal data, and any other important personal information you may have stored on your computer.

Some Trojans and other malware applications can use your email account to send email messages to a large group of people without your knowledge or consent. Many times messages sent by these types of malware programs contain more infections or links to commercial products or even inappropriate websites. As you can see, the consequences of malware can be disastrous.

As mentioned above, many malware programs target sensitive banking or financial information and then send it to a remote user (usually a criminal hacker.) However, many hackers also use information obtained through malware to create false identities and open new fraudulent bank or credit accounts. 

So, it's easy to see that malware not only causes computer problems, it also exposes you to financial and privacy losses as well.

How to avoid malware

The main cause of malware infections is downloads of certain programs or files from illegal or untrusted websites. Hackers tend to upload heavy concentrations of malicious files to websites that offer pirated music, software, or videos for download. 

Sometimes, downloading free media files may be tempting, but in addition to being illegal, it's also dangerous. Therefore, you should always remember that downloading pirated files may put your computer (and your data or privacy) at risk.

In addition to avoiding illegal downloads, the easiest way to ensure that your computer remains free from malicious files is to install a good anti-malware application. 

There are many free anti-malware applications available on the internet. Applications such as Adaware and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware are free applications that allow you to scan for and remove most forms of malware files. Just be sure to download them from the official developer website or a trusted download portal such as Download.com or Filepuma

Choosing an anti-malware program

While free anti-malware programs certainly help protect your computer from malicious files, they do lack some features that you should really consider in a protection utility. 

For instance, paid versions of better anti-malware programs include helpful features such as automatic pattern updates (pattern updates help the application detect and neutralize new malware releases,) real-time scanning and detection, and tools to help identify and eradicate nasty rootkit infections (which are particularly hard to find and remove in many cases.)

An effective paid anti-malware program need not be too expensive. In fact, Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Premium costs less than $30 and includes free lifetime pattern definition and program updates. Malwarebytes Premium offers real-time scanning, solid removal tools, and even blocks access to websites known to host malicious files or install viruses or malware on computers. 

Here on our website, we offer in-depth reviews and analyses of various anti-malware and antivirus programs we have tested. 

An anti-malware program is not enough

Although installing an effective anti-malware program is definitely a good start to preventing malicious file infections on your computer, you should not stop there. Besides a good malware scanner and removal program, you will need to install a good antivirus program or suit as well.

Antivirus (AV) applications are very similar to anti-malware programs. However, AV programs concentrate more on traditional viruses, or malicious files that replicate themselves. In many regards, viruses and malware are very similar, but the viruses can spread even without user interaction (which makes them even scarier than other types of malware.)

Free antivirus software

Just as with anti-malware programs, there are many free and paid options available for antivirus applications and suites. Some AV utilities are stand-alone virus detection and removable programs only, while others include anti-malware, firewall, anti-phishing, and other useful bonus features. 

Paid AV programs and suites usually include more features and real-time scanning capabilities. However, there are some very good free stand-alone antivirus scanners available as well.

For free antivirus programs, AVG, Avira, and even Microsoft's Security Essentials are all good choices. 

All of these programs offer reasonably good protection with effective scanning and neutralization engines. Features included with these free AV packages are limited and don't include extras such as hardened firewalls, anti-phishing filters, or email scanning capabilities. Nevertheless, if you're on a tight budget, a free antivirus program is certainly better than using nothing at all.

If you go the freeware route, though, keep in mind that you will probably need to update virus detection patterns and signature files manually. Most AV application development companies reserve auto-update features for paid versions.

Paid antivirus software

Most modern paid AV programs offer many more features than do their freeware counterparts. In most cases, a paid AV suite includes not only an upgraded virus detection and removal engine but also ships with security utilities such as a hardened firewall, a phishing and malicious website blocking feature, a vulnerability scanner, and other useful security and performance tools.

There are dozens of reputable AV suites to choose from on the internet. However, just as with any other type of software, some are more reliable and feature-rich than others. We have tested all of the most popular AV suites and posted our reviews and findings. Following our extensive testing of AV suites, we have found that BullGuard, Avira, ESET, and Panda are some of the best antivirus programs available.