Finance and Technology

How To Protect Your Private Information from Malware Attacks

Jun 2023 | By Greg Gazin

While you may not think so, your data is extremely valuable. This is true whether it’s something as simple as your name, address and phone number (which can easily be found in a directory), to your crucial financial and banking information. So much so, that felons from around the globe spend day and night trying to steal it from you. And while they can’t each into your pocket or purse, they can use various types of Malware to extract your information – sell it, corrupt it or hold it hostage.

What is Malware?

Malware is one of those hybrid terms – a combination of the words malicious and software. It is a general reference for any type of action, or activity, that is designed to exploit, or infiltrate, a computer or mobile device. 

In a previous column we looked at Email Phishing, which is not actually Malware, but a means to an end. Phishing is used to get unsuspecting individuals to visit a website infected with Malware, or click on a link that may install Malware on your device. 

Malware can take many forms, including commonly known Viruses, Worms, Spyware, Ransomware and Trojans. Some of these even work in conjunction with each other.

Viruses are Very Contagious

Computer viruses have been around for more than half a century. Typically, they’re a piece of malicious code that inserts itself into a piece of software. NortonLifeLock, formerly Symantec and the makers of Norton Anti-Virus, insists that viruses can also alter the way a computer operates, plus they are designed to spread from one computer to another. 

A virus is executed when the program is run, or at a specified time. The infection can be triggered by clicking on a link, downloading movies and files from questionable websites, or as an email attachment, where it can be hidden within a PDF or Word document.

Not only can it open a door to stealing or corrupting your data, it can also cause crashes and malfunctions on the systems that it infects.

Holding You Hostage

Equally nasty are Worms. These are pieces of executable code that spread like a virus and cause unknown effects. But, unlike a virus, it doesn’t need a host to replicate itself. As the name implies, it replicates by slithering its way from place to place – not just on your computer but across networks as well.

Spyware allows your computer or mobile device to act as a spy, and captures your every move. For example, keystroke loggers capture everything that is being inputted. These are not malicious per se, and parents can legitimately install these to monitor their kids’ activities. Cybercriminals install these in hopes of catching private information, like account numbers and passwords – making even the most complex password useless.  Spyware can also breach a user’s privacy by activating their webcam and microphone. 

Ransomware holds your computer for ransom. Attackers may encrypt the contents of your computer and convert everything to an unreadable format that can only be decrypted or decoded with a password, unless you send them payment – often in the form of cryptocurrency. This is why it’s important to have backed up before an incident occurs.  

A Ransomware attack may also threaten to publish confidential files, including documents that contain sensitive information, or by compromising photos, audio or videos that are stored on your computer or captured or from your webcam. 

A Trojan pretends to be something it’s not. It earned its moniker from the Trojan Horse used by the Greeks to win the Trojan war. Anti-Virus maker ‘Avast’ compare it to letting your guard down and opening your doors – leaving you vulnerable to attacks.

Trojans can appear to be legitimate. But it could be a piece of anti-virus software, which is the opposite. Unbeknownst to you, it could be a fake pop-up masquerading as a software update to the latest version of Acrobat, while downloading a PDF. You click as you’ve done in the past, and all of a sudden, your computer is infected with a virus or worm. It might even open a permanent backdoor, and bypass any security, allowing unlimited unrestricted access to your devices, as well as your connected devices like your home security and thermostat. Cybercriminals are constantly trying to stay one step ahead.

Advice for Protecting Yourself

There isn’t a foolproof way to ward off all attacks, but you can be diligent in taking precautions.

Use strong passwords and change them often. 

  • Always ensure that your operating systems are up to date
  • Use two-factor authentication – like having a code sent to your phone to sign in to on-line banking on your computer
  • Think twice before downloading or clicking on a link 
  • Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) like NordVPN to maintain a secure and private connection, especially on unsecured public Wi-Fi networks
  • Keep in mind that it’s not only computers, but also tablets and smartphones that are at risk
  • Ensure that you have the correct cyber-protection software for your environment and ensure that it’s always up to date
  • Legitimate protection is available from companies like Avast, AVG, NortonLifeLock, Kaspersky Labs and Sophos, to name a few