In today’s hyperconnected world, cybercrime is booming, and malware is its most popular weapon.
Malware comes in various forms and with different security threat levels. Hackers use them to intercept devices, data breaches, destroying entire businesses, causing severe monetary damages, and even destroy entire companies.
So, what exactly is malware, and how can you fight it?
In this extensive guide, we’ll explain everything there is to know about malware, its types, how to detect it and remove it, and how to protect yourself from the most vicious malware attacks.
Check Out Our Video Guide to Malware
What Is Malware?
Malware, short for malicious software, is any software that damages or gains unauthorized access to other users’ devices, websites, or networks, primarily for sinister purposes such as data breaches, identity theft, espionage, etc.
Before the term “malware” was coined in 1990 by Yisrael Rada, “computer viruses” were the preferred terminology. They’re frequently disguised as clean and harmless programs.
Malware can disrupt your service, delete your files, lock you out of your system, steal your most personal and confidential information, turn your device into a zombie, and even bring down entire networks and websites.
Given the exponential growth of websites, ecommerce solutions, and web apps, cybercriminals have countless opportunities to carry out their malicious schemes and take advantage of any possible vulnerability.
Website malware specifically attacks websites and servers. They’re usually developed to bypass a website or server’s security defenses — or through untrusted third-party software — and get unauthorized access without being detected. Website malware examples include DDoS attacks, malicious redirects, and spam content.
How Malware Works
There are different ways that cybercriminals use to infiltrate and cause damage to your system through malware. So how can you get infected by malware? Here are some popular avenues of attack.
1. Social Engineering
Malware is often distributed through social engineering attacks. Social engineering describes a wide variety of malicious cyber attacks. The attacker relies mainly on tricking users into giving away sensitive information or access to their devices.
2. Bundled Software
You can get infected by malware when you download a free software program that comes with additional third-party applications in which one of them could contain malware. Many people fall victim to this kind of malware attack because they forget to uncheck the installation of these additional apps.
3. Peer-to-Peer File Sharing
Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing protocols such as torrents are among the top methods cybercriminals use to distribute malware. Attackers can quickly spread their malicious codes through files shared via P2P, infecting as many networks and systems as possible.
Because getting free stuff is always an attractive option, it usually comes at a high price. Freeware downloaded from unknown or untrusted sources is often infected with malware that can damage your system and compromise your data.
Homogeneity can be a sitting duck for malware attacks. Malware can rapidly spread through systems connected to the same network and running the same operating system. If one device gets infected, chances are the entire network has been compromised.
Different Types of Malware
It’s important to know your enemy to learn how to get rid of malware and protect your computer, website, or server. These are the most common types of malware you should know about.
Viruses are the most visible and common types of malware. Viruses can replicate themselves, but they also need human action to carry out the damage.
Damages caused by viruses include corrupting data files, shutting down your system, or stealing confidential information if it’s inside a network. Viruses can also launch other cyber attacks such as DDoS attacks or even ransomware attacks.
The infected file, website, or app must be running for the virus to awaken and start operating. Otherwise, it will remain dormant until the victim user runs it. Most viruses crawl up and hide in common file extensions like .exe or .com.
Even WordPress websites can be infected if a user with access to the dashboard utilizes an infected device.
Macro viruses target software rather than operating systems in the same macro language as the software it’s targeting to infect, such as MS Word and Excel. As a result, this type of virus can infect any operating system, leading to severe security risks for your organization.
Macro viruses can spread through phishing emails, downloads from infected networks, malicious P2P services, or infected portable storage devices.
You’ve probably heard of the terrifying ransomware attacks that are threatening governments, individuals, and organizations. But perhaps you aren’t sure what exactly ransomware is and how it works.
In simple words, ransomware hijacks the target victim’s device or website, denying them access to their files until they pay a ransom to get the decryption key (although it’s not guaranteed even if you pay).
Since its spread in 2017 through the WannaCry cryptoworm, ransomware has evolved into different variants. Let’s take a look at some examples of ransomware variants.
Ryuk is a type of ransomware that encrypts files of the target system. This ransomware variant targets enterprises and organizations — rather than individuals — that use Microsoft OS. Ryuk is expensive as the group behind it demands ransoms of over $1 million in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
LockBit is a Ransom-as-a-Service (RaaS) variant of ransomware that attacks and rapidly encrypts data of large organizations before being detected by security systems and IT teams. When the ransom is paid, the LockBit gang splits the earnings with the affiliate directing the attack.
As a RaaS malware, the LockBit gang delivers the malware through affiliate services. Once it infects one host, it scans the network. It can quickly propagate to other devices using protocols associated with Windows systems, making it very difficult to be identified as a threat.
As the name implies, WordPress ransomware targets WordPress websites and spreads through them in demand of a ransom. The bigger the WordPress website, the more it attracts ransomware cybercriminals.
Recently, many legit WordPress websites have been hacked and injected with malicious code that spreads the TeslaCrypt ransomware by directing their visitors to malicious websites with the Nuclear Exploit kit.
A computer worm is a nasty, self-contained type of malware that’s a nightmare to fight due to its rapid spreading capability. The first computer worm, the Morris worm, was created in 1988 to highlight network weaknesses by exploiting email protocol vulnerabilities.
Like a virus, a worm can self-replicate, but unlike a virus, a worm doesn’t require any human intervention, a file, or a host program to spread from one device to another on a network and cause havoc.
Worms occupy entire systems and devour disk space/bandwidth/memory, modify or delete files, lock you out of folders, or even install other malicious software and steal data. Cyber attackers usually design worms to install backdoor software programs to access the victim’s devices (computer, mobile, tablet, etc.).
A worm takes advantage of the target system’s vulnerabilities to spread like wildfire from one device to another through LAN (internet), email attachments, instant messages, malicious links, removable storage drives, torrents, or even file-sharing platforms.
The amount of damage caused by worms throughout the past decades is enormous. For example, the MyDoom worm that targeted businesses in 2004 caused around $40 billion of damages. In 2017, the infamous WannaCry worm that started ransomware was created to demand a ransom from hacked users’ files.
4. Trojan Horse
Trojan Horse, or simply Trojan, is a malware program that disguises itself as legitimate software to give cyberattackers access to the user’s system.
The term is derived from the Ancient Greek story of the wooden horse presented as a gift to invade the city of Troy. Trojans are easy to write and spread, making them challenging to defend.
Trojan can be disguised as a website, media file, or any software program that attracts your attention to install it on your device. It can even look like an antivirus program warning you that your device is infected and urges you to run a program to clean it up.
Trojans can also appear as legitimate websites or emails with infected links. Some popular examples of trojans include Magic Lantern, WARRIOR PRIDE, FinFisher, Beast, Tiny Banker, Zeus, Netbus, Beast, and Shedun.
Unlike a computer virus, a trojan doesn’t replicate itself. Its mission is to open a doorway to hackers and scammers to steal your information, such as passwords, IP addresses, and banking details. Trojan malware will lurk in the infected system until the victim executes it.
Remote Access Trojan (RAT)
A Remote Access Trojan (RAT) is a malicious tool invented by cybercriminal developers to get full access and remote control over the victim’s device, such as file access, network remote access, and keyboard and mouse control.
RAT allows an attacker to bypass common firewalls and authentication systems to browse your device’s files and apps silently.
They can even infect entire networks, such as the notorious attack in Ukraine in 2015, where cybercriminals used RAT malware to cut the power off from 80,000 people and took control over the infrastructure.
Gootloader targets Google and WordPress users. It’s a member of the Gootkit malware family — a complex type of banking malware that can steal data from the victim’s browser and is used to spread malicious codes like ransomware.
The new Gootloader malware can tricking Google into treating infected (hacked) websites as trusted, including top-ranked Google and WordPress sites. So, how is that even possible?
Gootloader attackers first target numerous websites and maintain them on a network of around 400 servers. After that, they change those websites’ CMS to use specific SEO terms and tactics to appear in Google’s top search results to lure more victims.
When it comes to WordPress websites, Gootloader attacks by injecting lines of code into the file of a website’s page. On execution, these lines of code run a specific command to force the infected website to download a ton of pages with fake content as a decoy. At the same time, the attacker carries out its malicious scheme — undetected.
6. Fileless Malware
If ransomware is bad, fileless malware is even worse. Recent research has shown that the rate of fileless malware grew by almost 900% in the last quarter of 2020!
As its name suggests, fileless malware is a sinister type of stealth attack that doesn’t need to be stored in a file or installed directly on a device through any software. Instead, fileless malware goes straight into memory and starts executing codes or extracting data without noticing, making it extremely difficult to trace and remove even by an antivirus.
Fileless malware attacks target their victims through social engineering methods. Let’s take a look at those main methods below.
Phishing Emails and Infected Links
When you click on spam email, malicious downloads, or infected websites, you allow the malware to be loaded to your device’s memory, opening a door for attackers to load codes through scripts that can steal your sensitive data.
Memory Code Injection
This type of fileless malware remotely infects trusted operating system software such as Microsoft PowerShell and Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI). For example, Purple Fox is a memory code injection malware that infects PowerShell by injecting malicious codes to spread through systems. Purple Fox has infected at least 30,000 systems.
This malware works by injecting malicious code into the Windows registry. A famous example is Kovtermalware, which targets Windows systems. It often goes undetected because it evades file scanning by targeting the computer’s registry to store its configuration data.
Spyware installs on your computer without your consent or knowledge. It accesses browsing habits, internet activities, keystrokes, pins, passwords, financial information, and much more. It’s not restricted to computers only. Any device you use connected to the internet is vulnerable to this type of malware, even smartphones.
The information gathered is then forwarded — again without your consent or knowledge — to the perpetrator, who can use it or sell it to third parties. Spyware, on its own, is not harmful to your computer. However, the collection and theft of your information is the primary concern. The presence of spyware also indicates that you have a weakness in your device’s security.
The damages caused by spyware ranges from something as simple as your information being sold to advertisers all the way to complete identity theft. For example, the spyware DarkHotel targets business owners and government officials when connecting to public hotel WiFi. Cybercriminals then use it to gain sensitive information from these targets’ devices.
Adware is slightly similar to spyware as it also collects information such as browsing activities. Still, it doesn’t keep track of keystrokes, and its only purpose is tailoring advertisements for you. However, some adware can be more aggressive to the extent of even changing your browser settings, search engine preferences, and more.
Some adware is less intrusive and asks your permission before collecting the information. Then again, once the information is gathered, it can later be sold to other advertisers without your consent.
Malvertising is when the cybercriminal hides the malware within a legitimate ad. In this case, the attacker pays money to include an ad on a legitimate website. Once you click the ad, either you’re redirected to a malicious website, or the malware is automatically installed on your computer.
In some cases, the malware embedded in the ads may be automatically executed without you even clicking the ad — it’s referred to as a “drive-by download.”
Some cybercriminals could even infiltrate legitimate and large ad networks responsible for delivering ads to several large, well-known websites. That places all their victims at risk.
A keylogger is a type of malware that monitors the infected user’s activity online. However, keyloggers have a legitimate use in some cases. For example, some businesses use them to keep track of their employees’ activities, and some parents monitor their children’s online behavior.
In other cases, cybercriminals use keyloggers to steal passwords, financial data, or sensitive information. Cybercriminals use phishing, social engineering, or malicious downloads to introduce keyloggers into your system.
A famous example of keyloggers was called Olympic Vision, which targeted business executives from around the world. These attacks are labeled business email compromise (BEC). Olympic Vision relies on spear-phishing and social engineering techniques to access its targets’ systems, steal information, and spy on business transactions.
Bots are software applications that are typically controlled remotely and can perform tasks on command. They can have legitimate uses, such as indexing search engines. Still, They can also be used maliciously by taking the form of self-multiplying malware that is connected back to a central server.
Bots usually operate in large numbers, collectively referred to as a network of bots or botnets. These are used when launching remotely controlled floods of attacks, such as DDoS attacks.
For instance, the Mirai botnet could access all devices connected to the internet — including printers, smart appliances, DVRs, and more — by entering the device’s default username and password.
A rootkit is considered one of the most dangerous malware — it’s a backdoor program that allows the cybercriminal to gain full access and control the infected device, including administrative privileges.
The infiltrator can then spy on the targeted device, change its configurations, steal sensitive data, and pretty much anything else. All this is done remotely. Rootkit usually injects into applications, kernels, hypervisors, or firmware.
Rootkits can spread through phishing, malicious attachments, malicious downloads, and shared drives that are compromised. In addition, rootkits can hide other malware, such as keyloggers.
For example, a rootkit called Zacinlo hides in a fake VPN app and infects users’ systems when they download the application.
13. SQL Injection (SQLi)
SQL injection (SQLi) is one of the top database attacks and is still a severe concern for developers since its discovery in 1998.
SQL injection occurs when attackers exploit vulnerabilities in an application’s code and inject a malicious SQL query into any input fields found on the target website, such as login fields, contact form, site search bar, and comments section.
Successful SQLi attacks give hackers the ability to gain access to sensitive data, recover system files, execute admin tasks on your website’s database, modify database information. They can even issue and execute commands to the core database of the operating system.
One of the widespread SQL injection attacks targeted Cisco in 2018 when attackers found a vulnerability in Cisco Prime License Manager that gave them shell access to the license manager’s systems. Other high-profile victims of SQL injections are Tesla and Fortnite.
How To Detect Malware
Given the broad range of malware types and variants, as well as the growing sophistication of malware attacks, detecting them has never been harder, especially with the growth of particularly malicious threats like fileless malware.
Nevertheless, some key warning signs can tell if your device is infected with malware:
- Your device slows down, crashes suddenly, or shows frequent error messages.
- You’re unable to remove a specific software.
- Your device won’t shut down or restart.
- You find out that your device is sending out emails that you didn’t write.
- Programs are opening and closing automatically.
- You’re running low on storage space for no apparent reason.
- Your default browser and programs keep changing without any action from your end.
- Performance declines while battery consumption increases.
- You see lots of pop-ups and ads in unexpected places, such as on government websites.
- You can’t log into your website.
- You notice changes that you didn’t make to your website.
- Your website redirects to another site.
Since fileless malware is very difficult to detect, the best you can do is to keep an eye on network patterns and analyze apps that are vulnerable to infection. You need to also keep your software programs and browsers up to date and regularly search for any phishing emails.
How To Get Rid of Malware
If you get infected by malware, it’s important not to panic. There are a few options in which you can still save your device or website. Remember, different types of malware require different removal procedures.
Removing Malware from Devices
If you noticed that your computer or mobile device is experiencing some or all of the previously mentioned signs of malware infections, first identify the type of malware, then start taking the following actions:
- Virus or trojan: If your device is infected with a virus or trojan, you’ll need to install a reliable antivirus or antimalware program that can perform deep scans. It’s important to update your antivirus software regularly. Deploy a strong firewall and be careful when clicking on an email attachment and web links.
- Worm: Despite its hazardous effect, you can remove a computer worm similarly to removing a virus. Install a powerful antimalware software that can detect worms and let it do all the work. If your browser is infected, use a different computer, install your antimalware, and burn it onto a CD.
- Spam: Email services these days include antispam features. However, you can still install antispam software to help you get rid of spam emails and keep you protected.
Ransomware: If paying the ransom isn’t on the table for your organization, you need to record evidence of the attack for the authorities, then disconnect the infected device(s) immediately. After that, create a system backup if you still have access, disabling any system cleanup or optimization program to keep ransomware files for diagnostics. Lastly, start removing ransomware using robust cybersecurity software and hire a cybersecurity expert to guide you through the process of restoring your files.
- Adware: Getting rid of adware can be done using an antimalware program that has adware removal features. Be sure to disable pop-ups on your browser(s) and disable installing additional software by default.
Removing Malware From a WordPress Website
Although WordPress comes with loads of benefits for growing businesses, it still has several security vulnerabilities. If your WordPress website suffers from malware infection, follow our recommended steps to remove it like a skilled web admin.
You should also know Kinsta offers a security guarantee for all websites hosted with us, which includes malware removal from your WordPress site free of charge.
There are also quite a few WordPress security plugins you can take advantage of and help keep your site protected.
How To Protect Yourself from Malware
As you’ve probably realized by now, malware attacks are a huge deal, and learning how to protect yourself from them and avoid getting infected by them is essential for individuals and businesses alike.
In most cases, a malware infection requires action from your end, like downloading malicious content or clicking on an infected link. Here are the key precautions that you can take to avoid getting attacked by different types of malware.
1. Install Antimalware or Antivirus Software
It’s essential to have strong antimalware or antivirus software on your system that’s regularly updated. Run frequent scans, especially deep scans, to ensure that your device isn’t infected. Antimalware programs come in different protection levels:
- Browser-level protection: Some web browsers like Google Chrome have built-in antimalware protection to keep you safe from different malware threats. You can also install your own to protect your browser.
- Network-level protection: If you have a network of computers inside an organization, installing a network-level antimalware is your best option to protect your connected devices from malicious threats coming through your network traffic. Firewalls are especially recommended for this.
- Device-level protection: These tools help protect users’ devices from malicious threats.
- Server-level protection: If you have a big organization, this type of antimalware software safeguards your server network from malicious cyberattacks.
2. Don’t Open Emails From Untrusted Sources
Avoiding phishing begins with one important step: Don’t open dodgy emails with suspicious attachments.
If you aren’t certain that you can abide by this rule, or if you don’t trust your staff to follow this golden advice, then invest in email security tools. You can employ antispam email tools and S/MIME certificates to protect your email correspondence.
A S/MIME certificate is a PKI-based tool that enables you to exchange encrypted and digitally signed emails with other S/MIME certificate users. This way, you and your recipients will know that the emails are secure and legitimate.
3. Beware of Malicious Downloads and Pop-Ups
As with suspicious emails, it’s essential to pay attention to what you download and where you download it from. Clicking on links to download applications or games from untrusted sources is an invitation to cybercriminals and malicious attacks.
Pop-ups are no different. As previously mentioned, cybercriminals use manipulative ways to trick you into clicking on their infected links.
4. Perform Website and File Security Checks
You should also keep a close eye on the individual files that make up your website. A solid and regularly exercised file integrity monitoring procedure can help you spot potential attacks before they’ve been triggered.
If your website isn’t secure, it may not only get infected by malware, but it could also trigger a series of malicious attacks on other websites and users’ devices. What’s more, it will lower your SEO ranking on Google. The last thing you want is to start a malware attack showdown on the internet!
5. Maintain Regular Data Backups
Backing up data on your personal or company’s computer is crucial. Even though backing up data won’t protect you from malware attacks, it will help you recover your data if you get infected, say by ransomware or any other malicious threat.
To perform a healthy data backup, keep more than one copy of your data. It’s also better to use two different media types to store your data files in case of more than one attack. You can even choose to keep one copy of your data files in a secure offsite location.
Now that you have an overall view of the different types of malware and how to combat them, we strongly advise that you invest in solid and trustworthy data security measures.
We also recommend staying abreast of the latest cybersecurity risks and updating your systems and programs regularly.
Do you have any other tips for avoiding malware? Let us know in the comments section!