by Adam Baratz
Along with viruses, one of the biggest threats to computer users on the Internet today is malware. It can hijack your browser, redirect your search attempts, serve up nasty pop-up ads, track what web sites you visit, and generally screw things up. Malware programs are usually poorly-programmed and can cause your computer to become unbearably slow and unstable in addition to all the other havoc they wreak.
Many of them will reinstall themselves even after you think you have removed them, or hide themselves deep within Windows, making them very difficult to clean. This guide will detail the different varieties of malware along with basic preventive measures. In a follow-up article, we will examine the removal process and review a set of spyware removers. Although also considered to be malware, programs such as viruses, worms, trojans, and everything else generally detected by anti-virus software will not be discussed here, and the use of the word malware will only explicitly refer to software that fits in the categories listed below.
You can get infected by malware in several ways. Malware often comes bundled with other programs (Kazaa, iMesh, and other file sharing programs seem to be the biggest bundlers). These malware programs usually pop-up ads, sending revenue from the ads to the program's authors. Others are installed from websites, pretending to be software needed to view the website. Still others, most notably some of the CoolWebSearch variants, install themselves through holes in Internet Explorer like a virus would, requiring you to do nothing but visit the wrong web page to get infected.
The vast majority, however, must be installed by the user. Unfortunately, getting infected with malware is usually much easier than getting rid of it, and once you get malware on your computer it tends to multiply.
Will anti-virus programs protect against malware?Anti-virus companies are only beginning to pay attention to malware. Aside from some of the latest versions (many include the malware scanner in the Internet security portion of their suites), most anti-virus programs have little to no protection. Those anti-virus programs that do protect are generally not as thorough as a dedicated malware remover. However, some especially virulent malware that malware scanners may miss will be removed by anti-virus programs, so it is generally a good idea to run a virus scan as well. Some of the anti-virus vendors' delay may be caused by worries they will get sued if they start labeling programs spyware, adware, etc., which has already happened.
Types of malwareAlthough there is no official breakdown, we can divide malware into several broad categories of malware: adware, spyware, hijackers, toolbars, and dialers. Many, if not most malware programs will fit into more than one category.
It is very common for people to use the words adware, spyware, and malware interchangeably. Most products that call themselves spyware or adware removers will actually remove all types of malware.
AdwareAdware is the class of programs that place advertisements on your screen. These may be in the form of pop-ups, pop-unders, advertisements embedded in programs, advertisements placed on top of ads in web sites, or any other way the authors can think of showing you an ad. The pop-ups generally will not be stopped by pop-up stoppers, and often are not dependent on your having Internet Explorer open. They may show up when you are playing a game, writing a document, listening to music, or anything else. Should you be surfing, the advertisements will often be related to the web page you are viewing.
SpywarePrograms classified as spyware send information about you and your computer to somebody else. Some spyware simply relays the addresses of sites you visit or terms you search for to a server somewhere. Others may send back information you type into forms in Internet Explorer or the names of files you download. Still others search your hard drive and report back what programs you have installed, contents of your e-mail client's address book (usually to be sold to spammers), or any other information about or on your computer – things such as your name, browser history, login names and passwords, credit card numbers, and your phone number and address.
Spyware often works in conjunction with toolbars. It may also use a program that is always running in the background to collect data, or it may integrate itself into Internet Explorer, allowing it to run undetected whenever Internet Explorer is open.