Malware is an abbreviation for the term “malicious software”. The intent of malware is to disrupt computer operations and/or gain access to sensitive information that may be used to the cybercriminal’s advantage. Malware has also been increasingly used as a platform for unwanted advertising – leveraging an infected computer to send out unsolicited advertisements to other computers. Once the malware takes control of a private computer system, it may launch anything from a spam campaign to a ransomware attack (see below) while continuing to spread across computers and networks that it’s able to access.

Malware is typically distributed as small, agile parasite software that latches itself onto legitimate software, files or even websites. It is usually unknowingly launched while the affected software is being used.

Malware is not new. It’s been around for longer than most people suspect. Viruses were launched just as soon as personal computing became popular. Today’s malware is really just an advanced version of earlier viruses, with innumerable new versions being launched each year.

Malware is defined by its malicious intent. All malware seeks to do some kind of harm and create chaos. Every version of malware seeks to disrupt the use of a computer. Because they are designed to imbed themselves in operating systems and deep inside complicated software code, getting rid of them can be complicated and in some cases, not worth the effort.

Technically, ransomware is a type of malware. But because of its exceptionally malicious nature, it’s usually considered something apart from most malware.

Ransomware is named as such for a reason. Its purpose is to hold data, computer files, or even an entire computer network or mobile device “hostage” until the ransom (usually some form of currency) is delivered to the cybercriminal. Computers and/or associated files are usually encrypted by the ransomware, and victims are only given the chance to obtain the decryption key by completing by delivering the ransom to the perpetrators.

There is no guarantee, however, that the decryption key will be provided even after the ransom has changed hands. There have been numerous cases documenting this. Today’s ransomware criminals will often require that the ransom be delivered in an anonymous payment method such as Bitcoin or gift cards. Once they have their ransom, they have no incentive to return or decrypt any data. There is no honor among thieves, so they just walk away.

Malware and ransomware are widespread. If you use a computer, you are at risk. There are multiple anti-malware programs available to you today. Do your research and choose one. These anti-virus programs, however, should never be considered a 100% complete defense against viruses. They should be considered part of a larger program. Having said that, the most common defense against malware and ransomware is your own common sense. Be conscious of what you do and how you do it when using your computer.