When it comes to computer attacks, a wide range of terms are thrown around almost interchangeably. Virus, trojan, worm, malware, spamware, spyware; what do they all mean?
Malware in General
Malware is the general term for all forms of malicious software. Viruses, spamware and spyware are all types of malware. Worms, trojans and rootkits are all forms of viruses. They each have different purposes and are different levels of severe.
- Trojans are quiet viruses that operate behind the scenes, filling your machine up with other viruses before you notice
- Worms are viruses that attack directly, hoping to compromise your system through a single dedicated security hole
- Rootkits install themselves on deeper parts of your computer and are very difficult to remove
- Spamware and spyware are more up-front and less dangerous in a direct way
Spamware is software that installs itself on your computer, or comes bundled with other software. It can range from fake antivirus software to advertisement browser popups and toolbars. Spamware is a very obvious, up-front form of malicious software that doesn’t directly compromise your computer. In most cases, spamware is easy to remove.
Spamware works as an advertisement for the product or service that puts out the software. Toolbars, popup ads and other such spam advertisements attempt to get you to purchase a product. Some variants will simply redirect your searches or add advertisements to the pages you visit, which earns the owner of those advertisements money.
The most malicious forms of spamware are the fake antivirus variants. These hold your system hostage, telling you that you have a virus and that you need to purchase their specific antivirus solution to remove it. In reality, you are giving money to swindlers who then send you another virus to install.
Spyware is much more insidious and dangerous than spamware. Spyware often operates int he background, where you can’t see it if you don’t notice your computer operating more slowly or your Internet traffic increasing. Spyware comes in several varieties.
Tracking cookies. Some users consider cookies to be a form of spyware. However, cookies are passive and generally exist to keep you logged in to sites you want to stay signed in to. Cookies are easy to clear with routine computer maintenance and do not report to any site other than their originator.
Activity monitors. These spyware applications run silently in the background and report on your behaviors while using your computer. They monitor the websites you visit, the images you view, the things you type and the times you browse.
Information thieves. These are the most malicious forms of spyware. They specifically watch for login and password information, as well as personal items such as credit card numbers. This information is reported and used by the owner of the spyware for nefarious purposes.
Any of these types of malware can strike at any time. Security software is not infallible; new security holes are discovered constantly and must be patched out through regular server repairs or PC updates.
Thankfully, both spamware and spyware are relatively easy to remove. They are not as deeply embedded in the average computer that basic computer maintenance cannot remove them. Routine scans with anti-malware software will find and remove all but the most recently created spam and spyware applications.
The largest threat offered by spyware is the loss of personal information. Spamware is more psychological; some versions do not directly harm you in any way, beyond exposing you to advertising you would rather avoid. In all cases, server repairs are only necessary in the most extreme circumstances; simply removing the offending programs and updating security software is enough to solve the problem.