Malware: what is it, and can VPNs help?

Software is a term encompassing all the apps, programs, and other clumps of ones and zeros that make our digital devices do what they want. Without software, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. Unfortunately, software has an evil brother that can very well disrupt your life: malware. But what is it, and how can you stop it? And can a VPN help contain malware?

    What is malware?

    Malware, or malicious software, is a type of program or a file that is harmful to your computer. Scammers and hackers use it to compromise your device or its functions, steal your data, etc.

    For example, your device can be injected with malware that searches for sensitive information (like passwords or bank account details) and sends it back to the attacker.

    What are the types of malware?

    The most common types of malware are:

    • Computer virus: designed to disrupt the activities of the device.
    • Spyware: designed to spy on users’ activities.
    • Trojan horse: disguised to look like legitimate software.
    • Bot: designed to perform a specific operation continuously and automatically. Bots are not always malicious; sometimes, they are used for internet auctions, online gaming, etc.
    • Bug: a flaw in programming that malicious actors can exploit.
    • Rootkit: used to grant unauthorized access to systems.
    • Worm: duplicates itself to spread to other computers.
    • Adware: automatically delivers annoying advertisements.
    • Ransomware: locks away the system or data unless a ransom is paid.

    How do you get malware?

    There are many methods on how malicious software gets into your device. Hackers get crafty to think of new ways to get you. Many of these infection routes rely on the user doing something, which is the reason why antivirus software and VPNs can’t completely block malware infections. 

    Commonly, you get malware if you:

    • Accidentally click on an infected website
    • Download an infected file
    • Open an infected email or message
    • Do not update your operating system, programs, and apps
    • Install malicious software that was bundled with other software

    How to avoid getting malware

    The best way to deal with malware is to not get it in the first place. Here’s how you can protect yourself from malware:

    1. Have a working anti-virus program.
    2. Always update your operating system and apps.
    3. Don’t open suspicious emails, email attachments, or links. 
    4. Be cautious with file sharing. 
    5. Be very suspicious of any pop-up windows telling you to download software. 
    6. Be very careful when using public Wi-Fi. 

    Does a VPN protect you from malware?

    It depends. A VPN can do very little to prevent you from getting infected by malware. A VPN can’t protect you from viruses and other similar threats outside of securing your Wi-Fi connection from man-in-the-middle attacks

    What a VPN can do is encrypt the data you send and receive. So if you’re downloading an infected app, a VPN will prevent others from seeing your download but won’t protect you from making the download. The same goes for opening phishing emails or connecting to infected sites. That’s why firewalls and antivirus software exist. 

    Securing your connection with a VPN can prevent malware from successfully carrying out its task. A VPN blocks ports by default, making it hard for malware to open a channel with its handler to transfer data or receive commands. Aside from that, many VPNs come bundled with additional adblocking features like CleanWeb, which are designed to improve your online security.

    Read more about VPN protection:

    1. What is VPN protection and why it’s essential
    2. Does a VPN protect you from hackers

    How to know if a device is infected with malware

    How to know if a device is infected with malware

    There are many warning signs which could mean that your device is infected. You should pay attention if:

    • Your device starts slowing down for no reason
    • You started getting more ads than usual
    • Your device starts freezing and crashing
    • Odd pop-ups
    • Homepage on your browser was changed
    • Internet traffic started increasing
    • Security software was disabled
    • New icons appeared on your desktop, although you did not install anything
    • Unfamiliar error messages popping up 

    What happens when malware is installed on a router?

    There are two most common scenarios after a router gets infected:

    • An operator uses your router to create botnets and use them for DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks or similar activities.
    • An attacker injects malware which compromises your internet traffic.

    What to do when malware is detected

    After you detect malware on your device, you should try backing up your personal files, if it is possible.

    Next, disconnect your device from the internet, and do a little research to get a grasp of what kind of malware you have. It is best to do that using another uninfected device. Do not worry if you find it hard to identify a particular malware. There are plenty of tools to remove infections.

    Then, scan your device with multiple programs until no malware is found. After your device is clean again, install security software to prevent similar attacks in the future.

    Does my operating system matter when it comes to malware security?

    Yes, it does.

    Since malware is essentially malicious code, it can run on many different operating systems including Windows, macOS, and Linux. Despite this, certain systems are more resistant to malware threats than others.

    As the all-time running butt of the joke, Windows is considered the least secure operating system out of all three. To exaggerate a bit, it’s because Windows essentially allows everything while macOS and Linux don’t allow anything. In other words, Windows is more convenient and easier to use, but macOS and Linux are much safer if you don’t really know what you’re doing.

    Windows devices are also more likely to be targeted by malware since most of the enterprise world runs on Microsoft devices. But overall, it gets more bad rep than it deserves. From a purely technical point of view, Windows devices are no less secure than macOS or Linux.

    In fact, there are only a few things that set macOS and Linux apart from Windows in terms of security. For macOS, it’s the security features of the T2 security chip like Touch ID, secure boot, and FileVault. For Linux, its biggest savior is the Open-Source code that’s being broken down and examined by thousands of experts around the world.

    So if you really care about security, you can try using the less popular operating systems like macOS and Linux just to avoid a lot of malware that targets Windows specifically. However, that does not mean that you should just ignore the rest of the advice in this article if you have a device that’s not Windows.

    Your security is in your hands

    There is not one single app in the world that can make you safe from malware. However, the tools that exist will aid you greatly. For example, a firewall will help keep any malicious communications from reaching or exiting your device. An antivirus will aid in the removal of malware. And VPN will impede malware communications as well as increase your privacy at any time of the day. 

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