How to Detect and Avoid Malware

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"Malware" is a short way of saying "malicious software." Malware programs are most commonly used to crash computers and mobile devices, spy on users, capture personally identifying information, and commit fraud.

Hackers and cyber thieves use a variety of methods to install malware—including viruses and spyware—on computers and mobile devices without the user's consent.

The best way to combat malware is to try to prevent it from ever being installed. There are also ways to detect the problem early if criminals do succeed in infecting your system.

Here are some useful tips to keep your computer safe from malware:


Keep your computer's security up to date.

  • Protect your computer with anti-malware and antivirus software, as well as a firewall
  • Set your security software, browser, and operating system to download updates and patches automatically
  • Back up your data regularly


Be vigilant when downloading and installing new software.

  • Verify that anything you install comes from known and trusted websites
  • Ensure your browser's security settings are high enough to detect automatic or unauthorized downloads


Monitor your emails.

  • Even if you think the email is from a company you know and trust, it may not be (see the Center for Identity's article How to Spot a Phishing Email)
  • Don't click on a link within an email; type the address into a separate browser window
  • Avoid opening e-mail attachments unless you're absolutely certain the email is legitimate


Be careful of popups.

  • Use a pop-up blocker if possible
  • If you can't, or choose not to, use a pop-up blocker, make sure not to click on any links that appear in pop-up windows
  • Never buy software you see advertised in a pop-up (A favorite of scam artists is the pop-up claiming to have scanned your computer and found malware; these are much more likely to be spreading malware than fighting it!)


Sometimes, however, even the most vigilant efforts fail. Here's how to determine if your system has been infected. Look for:

  • Unusual behavior in your system, such as slowdowns, crashing, or repeated error messages
  • An increase in the number of pop-up ads
  • New toolbars or icons you don't remember installing
  • Your system sending you to unexpected websites or home pages.


If you discover that your system is infected with malware:

  • Stop using the computer for shopping, banking, or any other uses that involve passwords and other PII.
  • Verify that your security software is running and current.
  • Run your security software to find and delete viruses and other malware. You may need to restart your computer for the changes to take effect.
  • If your system still has issues, consult an Information Technology (IT) professional.
  • If the computer is owned by your employer, make sure to keep your employer's IT staff informed.
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