The increasing number of Internet users worldwide creates as many opportunities for IT criminals to take advantage of our systems. As we become more dependent on the online environment, we see the emergence of a massive growth in malware and criminal activities all across the globe.
With so many ways out there to access and exploit vulnerable systems, we need to make sure we are able to recognize a malware infection in order to prevent and defend our systems from malicious software and cyber criminals.
What’s the difference between a virus & malware?
Viruses are a specific type of malware (designed to replicate and spread), while malware is a broad term used to describe all sorts of unwanted or malicious code. Malware can include viruses, spyware, adware, nagware, trojans, worms, and more. However, because viruses (and to a lesser extent, trojans and worms) made headlines a few years ago, most security companies focused their marketing on them, which is why they’re called “antivirus.
Symptoms of a system infection
It takes longer than normal for your operating system to boot up? Are you waiting too long for some of your programs to start?
It is a known fact that malware has the tendency to slow down your operating system, your Internet speed or the speed of your applications.
If you notice something like this and you are not using any resource-heavy program or application, check first for other causes. It may be a lack of RAM memory, a fragmented system, a lack of space on your hard drive or maybe a hardware issue affecting your drive.
If you have already verified these possible causes and all seemed fine, maybe you should start suspecting a malware issue on the system.
One of the most annoying signs of malware is represented by the unwanted pop-up windows. Unexpected pop-ups which appear on the system are a typical sign of a spyware infection.
In this particular case, the main issue is created not only by the numerous pop-up windows that affect your Internet navigation, but also because it is quite difficult to remove them from the system. Pop-ups are not only annoying, but they usually come together with other malware threats which are concealed from our eyes, and which could be far more destructive for our systems.
To avoid spyware and its negative consequences for our systems, keep in mind a few security practices:
- don’t click any suspicious pop-up windows
- don’t answer to unexpected answers
- be careful when downloading free applications
To remove this type of threat, you need a very good security product against spyware. A few popular products capable of removing spyware from your system are Malwarebytes, Spybot Search and Destroy, Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware and others.
If your programs or your system regularly crash or the infamous BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) appears regularly, it is a clear warning that your system is not working properly and you should look into it.
We need to mention here the 2 particular cases which may cause this problem. You could be dealing with a technical issue caused by a potential incompatibility between your programs or it may be a malware issue.
If you suspect a technical issue, multiple software problems may lead to this. Are you running various programs which may conflict with each other? Is there any orphan registry keys which have not been removed slowing down and eventually crashing your system?
If you are checking for malware, simply run a complete scan on the system with a good antivirus product. It is important to have a reliable security solution on your system, which should include real-time scanning, automatic update and a firewall.
4. Suspicious Hard drive activity
Another warning sign of a potential malware infection on your system is the hard drive activity. If you notice that your disk continues to have excessive activity even when you don’t use it anymore and there is no present program or download running at that moment, this could be the moment to check your system for malware.
I have to mention that another possible cause for the abnormal hard disk activity could be a hardware failure of the disk. This should also be taken into consideration.
5. Running out of hard drive space
Regarding the hard drive, you also need to check if your physical storage space has been increasing lately or if some of your files have disappeared or changed their names. This is another sign of Malware activity, since there are numerous types of malicious software which uses various methods to fill up all of the available space on the hard drive.
6. Unusual high network activity
There are cases where the user is not connected to the Internet with his browser and there is no program that may connect to online servers to download or upload any data, but a high network activity can still be observed.
First of all, we need to check the following:
- Is there any Windows update at that moment?
- Is there any program or application that may be downloading or uploading any data?
- Is there any update for a certain program running at that moment?
- Is there a large download that you started and forgot about it and is still running in the background?
If the answer to all these questions is No, then maybe you should check where all that traffic is going.
- To monitor your network, you can use one of the following programs: GlassWire, Little Snitch or Wireshark.
- To check for a malware infection, use a good antivirus product to check your system.
- If you suspect that your computer has been infected by a dangerous financial malware, you need a specialized software designed to address these type of threats.
7. New Browser home page, new toolbars and/or your browser opens unwanted websites
Did you notice your home page has been changed and you don’t seem to know why? A new toolbar seems to be placed at top of your web browser? Have you tried to access your favourite blog, but you were sent to a different address?
This usually happens when you visit a website and you accidentally click an online link or a pop-up window. This action triggers the download and install of a secondary software, which is not only annoying, but also malicious.
Run a complete scan with your security solution as soon as possible. Because these type of threats don’t easily go away, make sure you run additional scans with specialized software, such as anti-spyware programs mentioned above.
8. Unusual messages or programs starting automatically
If, all of a sudden, you see programs opening and closing automatically, your Windows operating system shutting down without reason or you have strange windows in the booting process and Windows lets you know that you lost access to some of your drives, this is something you should worry about.
Though it may be a technical issue, it is also a sign that malware could be present on the system. If this is the case and you lost access to some important areas of your operating system, you need to prepare for the worst. These are the cases when a complete wipe and reinstall of the operating system is taken into consideration.
9. Your security solution is disabled
Your antivirus solution doesn’t seem to work anymore or the Update module seems to be disabled. You should know that some malware programs are specially designed to disable security programs, leaving you without any defense. If you already tried to reboot your computer, close and open the security solution and all other normal troubleshooting steps resulted in no positive outcome, you may consider that your computer has been affected by malware.
Though we prepare for the worst, we complement our online security by employing advanced anti-spyware solutions and security programs specially designed to keep our money safe, there are cases when a powerful malware gets beyond our defences and compromises our security solution.
10. Your friends say they receive strange messages or e-mails from you
Are your friends telling you that they received suspicious e-mails from you or instant messages from your social media account containing attachments or links?
First of all, you need to verify whether those e-mails or messages were sent from one of your accounts (so check your Sent Items folder in your e-mail account) or if those messages were delivered from an application which is out of your control.
If you discover the messages were sent from one of your accounts, make sure of the following:
- Make sure you logged out from all your accounts. We access the same accounts on our work computers, on our home laptops and of course, on our mobile devices. Since we log in to our favorite online accounts on so many mobile devices, it is quite possible that sometimes we forget to log out. Therefore, always make sure to log out from your online accounts on all the devices.
- Set strong passwords for your accounts. Don’t forget to combine upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. Don’t use the same password for all your accounts. Even if you are hacked, having different passwords for each account will help you limit a potential loss. Make a habit of changing your main passwords every 30 days. Use a strong and secure password manager as “LastPass”.
- Use two-factor authentication. Use this method to make sure your online accounts or your e-mail address are not accessed by somebody else. Using this option means that, besides entering your credentials, you will also need to enter a code sent to your phone.
Two-factor authentication is a security feature that requires users to confirm their identity by entering a code sent to a device after signing in. As with many banking services, the extra step is meant to double access strength and reduce the risk of data thieves breaking into people’s accounts, even if their password is stolen or cracked.
Note: Sometimes Malware cannot be removed with Malware software. In this case the computer data will need to be backed up, the hard drive formatted, and Windows re-installed.