We'd like to believe the Internet is a safe and honest place for everyone, but there's no denying that online criminals and hackers are lurking out there, trying to stir up trouble. One way they cause trouble is by spreading malware. You can protect yourself by learning what malware is, how it spreads, and how to prevent it.
"Malware" is any kind of software that's designed to harm a computer. Malware can steal sensitive information from your computer, gradually slow down your computer, or even send fake emails from your email account without your knowledge. Here are some common types of malware you might have heard about:
- Virus: A harmful computer program that can copy itself and infect a computer.
- Worm: A malicious computer program that sends copies of itself to other computers via a network.
- Spyware: Malware that collects information from people without their knowledge.
- Adware: Software that automatically plays, displays, or downloads advertisements on a computer.
- Trojan horse: A destructive program that pretends to be a useful application, but harms your computer or steals your information after it's installed.
How malware spreads
Malware can get onto your computer in a number of different ways. Here are some common examples:
- Downloading free software from the Internet that secretly contains malware
- Downloading legitimate software that's secretly bundled with malware
- Visiting a website that's infected with malware
- Clicking a fake error message or pop-up window that starts a malware download
- Opening an email attachment that contains malware
There are a lot of different ways that malware can spread, but that doesn't mean you're powerless to stop it. Now that you know what malware is and what it can do, let's go over some practical steps you can take to protect yourself.
How to prevent malware
Keep your computer and software updated
Microsoft and Apple often release updates for their operating systems, and it's a good idea to install these updates when they become available for your Windows and Mac computers. These updates often include fixes that can improve the security of your system. Some operating systems also offer automatic updates, so that you can automatically get updates soon after they're available.
Windows users can install updates using a feature called "Windows Update," while Mac users can install updates using a feature called "Software Update." If you're not familiar with these features, we encourage you to search the Microsoft and Apple websites for more information on how to install system updates on your computer.
In addition to your computer's operating system, your computer's software should also be kept up to date with the latest versions. Newer versions often contain more security fixes to prevent malware attacks.
Use a non-administrator account whenever possible
Most operating systems allow you to create multiple user accounts on your computer, so that different users can have different settings. These user accounts can also be set up to have different security settings.
For example, an "admin" (or "administrator") account usually has the ability to install new software, while "limited" or "standard" accounts usually don't have the ability to do so. When doing day-to-day web browsing, you probably don't need to install new software, so we suggest that you use a "limited" or "standard" user account whenever possible. Doing this can help prevent malware from getting installed on your computer and making system-wide changes.
Think twice before clicking links or downloading anything
In the real world, most people would probably be a little suspicious about stepping into a shady-looking building with a sign that says "Free computers!" in flashing lights. On the web, you should adopt a similar level of caution when entering unfamiliar websites that claim to offer free things.
We know it might be tempting to download that free video editing program or role-playing game, but do you really trust the website that's offering it? Sometimes it helps to leave that website and search for reviews or information about that website or program before downloading or installing anything. Downloads are one of the main ways people get malware, so remember to think twice about what you're downloading and where you're downloading it from.
Be careful about opening email attachments or images
If a random person sends you a box of chocolates in the mail, would you open it and scarf it down without any hesitation? Probably not. Similarly, you should be wary if a random person sends you a suspicious email containing attachments or images. Sometimes, those emails might just be spam, but other times, those emails might secretly contain harmful malware. If you use Gmail, report those emails as spam so that we can better weed out emails like this in the future.
Don't trust pop-up windows that ask you to download software
When surfing the web, you might come across sites that show pop-up windows, making you believe your computer has been infected and asking you to download some software in order to protect yourself. Don't fall for this trick. Just close the pop-up window and make sure you don't click inside the pop-up window.
Limit your file-sharing
Some sites and applications allow you to easily share files with other users. Many of these sites and applications offer little protection against malware. If you exchange or download files using these file-sharing methods, be on the lookout for malware. Malware can often be disguised as a popular movie, album, game, or program.
Use antivirus software
If you need to download something, you should use an antivirus program to scan that download for malware before opening it. Antivirus software also allows you to scan your entire computer for malware. It's a good idea to run regular scans of your computer to catch malware early and prevent it from spreading. Google doesn't make any antivirus software, but the following article contains a list of antivirus software that you might want to consider: Removing malware from your computer.
- Review our account security tips