You’ve all heard the warnings by now: don’t click on unknown links, as doing so could infect your device with malware. Whether it’s a link in an email from an address you don’t know, a fake download button on a streaming site, or a tempting-looking link in a Google search, you’ll see these dubious links everywhere when you’re online. But even if you know about the dangers of malware, you might still end up clicking such a link by accident.
What Does Malware Mean?
There is some confusion among less experience computer users about what exactly the term ‘malware’ means. And if you’ve been using computers for a long time then you might be more familiar with the term ‘virus’. It helps to understand how these terms are used so you can get a handle on your security.
Malware means malicious software. It is software which is installed onto your device and acts against your interests – so that means that the software might use your system resources, steal your data, copy your files, try to extort money from you, or make your device part of a botnet. The term malware covers many sorts of hostile software including viruses, worms, ransomware, spyware, adware, and more.
A virus is a particular type of malware. It is a program which copies itself when run and passes itself on to other devices on the network, allowing the virus to spread and infect other devices.
Typically, when people are having problems with their computer they might say that it has a ‘virus’. In actuality, they most likely have some other kind of malware causing them problems. For the sake of clarity we’ll be referring to malware rather than viruses for the rest of this article.
What Does Malware Look Like?
As the term malware covers a wide range of different types of software, if your device is infected then it can behave in a variety of ways. One malware tactic that is famous for being particularly worrying to deal with is ransomware. This is software that gets into your system and encrypts or hides away your files, then puts up a popup demanding that you send money to the scammers in order to retrieve your files. This type of malware has caused a lot of chaos in the last few years because it spreads between devices so fast that whole networks can become infected very quickly.
Another common form of malware is adware. This sneaks ads into your device like inserting them into websites or even into application windows. This is less dangerous than other types of malware, but is still very annoying. The infamous browser toolbars that used to be everywhere 10 years ago are an example of this kind of malware. They might redirect browser search queries to another search engine, open up tabs of advertising pages, or add banner adverts to web pages that you visit.
One reason to worry is that you might not even be aware that your device has been infected. Sometimes, a piece of malware will sit in the background while you are using your device and consume system resources by doing something nefarious – like sending out spam from your device, using your device to mine cryptocurrency, or performing ad fraud. But unless you know how to look through your system processes, you might not even notice it. Spyware is a type of malware which collects data from your device (including your passwords) and sends this data back to the scammers. A sign of malware infection to look out for is if your device becomes much slower to start up and to load software or web pages. Your device might also get hot if its a mobile. However, slowing down is something that happens to devices over time anyway, so it can be hard to tell whether your device is infected or just getting older.
What Devices Are Vulnerable To Malware?
The devices in your home that are most likely to be infected with malware are your personal computer and your phone or tablet. The personal computer refers to your desktop or laptop, which could be running Windows, Mac OS, or Linux. All of these operating systems have security limitations that you should be aware of.
You might have heard long ago that “Macs don’t get malware” or that you can’t infect a Linux computer with Malware. While it used to be true that there were fewer pieces of malware written targeting Mac and Linux users than Windows users, it has always been possible for any home computing device to become infected with malware. And in fact, as Linux and in particular Macs have grown to be more popular, now more malware is being created which targets these operating systems too.
As mobile phones and tablets have become more popular, now they are often the targets of malware too. Android and iOS are two very commonly used mobile operating systems which are vulnerable to malware too.
How Does Your Device Get Infected By Malware?
This all sounds very worrying, however, you can avoid the vast majority of malware by being careful what you click on. Generally, malware gets onto your device when you allow an untrusted site or program to run an installer file for your operating system. For example, if you visit a streaming or a torrent site you will often see buttons underneath the files that you actually want which say things like “Download in HD now!”. These buttons are not part of the website, but are actually trying to infect your computer with malware. If you click on the button it will try to install malware software on your machine.
Another common way that malware is spread is through links in emails. If you see an email in your inbox from an unknown user then it’s best not to open the email at all. But if you do open it, definitely don’t click on any links in the email as these will likely be malware download links. Also, don’t open any attachments from unknown senders, as attachments can hide malware links even in something that looks benign like a PowerPoint document or a PDF.
How Do You Recognise Malware Links?
As we said before, you should always consider the source of a link before you click on it. If the source of a link is an unknown email address, an unsolicited message in your Facebook messages from someone you don’t know, or a tweet from an unknown user with no followers, then it’s probably a malware link.
You should also be careful with shortened URLs. URL shortening became popular due to the character limit on Twitter and other platforms – so when users wanted to add a link to a tweet but not have it take up too much space, they would use a URL shortener. That way, a long link like:
gets shortened to a shorter link like:
The problem with this is that it makes it easy to hide a malicious link. If you saw a link like:
then you’d know not to click it. But if the URL is shortened, you wouldn’t be able to tell.
If you’re not sure about a shortened link that you’ve found, try plugging it into a checking site like https://checkshorturl.com to see if it’s safe before you click. You can also use a website reputation checker tool like https://www.urlvoid.com/ to check whether a link you find is known to be dubious or not.
What To Do If You Click On A Malware Link
Perhaps you’ve accidentally clicked on a link that you think is suspicious. That’s ok, these things happen. But you should take the following steps to keep yourself safe from malware:
- Stay calm. You don’t need to panic. If you’ve only clicked on one malware link, then you’re likely to be fine. Just follow the next steps to make sure.
- Disconnect from the internet. Malware can spread from your device to other devices on your network and can communicate across the internet. So if you think you are dealing with a malware infection, the first thing to do is to take your device offline. You can do this by unplugging the cable for wired internet or disabling the wifi and mobile data on a wifi device.
- Use task manager to kill your browser. You want to get away from the malware site and kill any processes that it could be running on your device. The best way to do this is to use the task manager on your device to kill your browser.
- Reject any downloads that try to start. When you click on a malware link, it will take you to a webpage where an automatic download will probably begin. You should not allow your browse to download files automatically, so the browser will usually ask you if you want to download the file. If you click cancel then the download won’t run and you are likely safe.
- If you do download a file, do not open it. You should get a warning if your browser tries to run a .exe file or other potentially dangerous file type. Cancel the autorun and delete the file straight away.
- Clear your cache. To get rid of any lingering files from visiting the malware site, clear your browser’s cache.
- Run a malware scan. To check whether your device has been infected with an malware and to clear it off if it has, use a malware scanning utility straight away. There are many options for malware scanners out there, but Malwarebytes is a popular tool which you can get for free.
- Android users: Run a root kit scanner. If you’re on Android, you might want to take the extra step of running a root kit scanner too, just to be sure that you’ve caught all of the potential malware.
- Use real time malware protection. To prevent problems in future, you should get anti malware software with real time protection which will deflect most malware installation attempts. However, remember that your software is only as accurate as its most recent update. Be sure to update both your operating system and your anti malware software regularly to protect you from the latest threats.
Use A VPN To Stay Safe Online
Another good security practise to get into is using a VPN whenever you go online. This works by encrypting all of the data that your device sends over the internet, so that other people can’t see or steal your data. This is particularly important when you use public wifi networks like the ones that you find in libraries or at the airport, as some types of malware are designed to target people using these online access points. Also, a VPN will protect you from issues like identity theft by securing your data so that it is not available to others.
However, remember that generally a VPN will not protect you from malware if you click on malware links. It’s best to have both real time anti malware software and a VPN that you use together for the optimal online protection.
Our Recommended VPNs
There are two VPN providers that we particularly recommend to keep you safe when you go online:
ExpressVPN is a hugely popular VPN that covers all the essential bases: speed, ease of use, and high level of security. To keep your data safe and private the service uses strong 256-bit encryption and a no logging policy, plus there are more security options in the software like DNS leak protection, a kill switch, and an IP address checker.
The connections are super fast and the server network is large, covering 1500 servers in 94 different countries. The software is easy to use and is available for devices running Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and Android, plus some games consoles and smart TVs. There are also browser extensions that are available for Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Apple Safari.
Read our full ExpressVPN review here.
NordVPN is a top VPN for privacy and security. The VPN has the important security features like the use of 256-bit encryption and a no logging policy, plus special servers which give you extra security features like anti DDoS, double VPN, and onion over VPN. This service is special because in addition to the VPN, there is also a CyberSec option that you can enable. This cyber security suite will protect you from malware, phishing, and other threats. You just need to enable the CyberSec switch in Settings and you’ll be kept safe from malware while you use your VPN.
The connections are plenty fast enough for downloading or streaming large files and there are lots of servers available – more than 3500 in 60 different countries. The software can be installed on devices running Windows, Mac OS, Linux, iOS, Chrome OS, Android, or Windows Phone.
Malware is a common problem that can cause anything from the minor annoyance of seeing extra ads on webpages to the complete havoc of having all of your files encrypted and ransomed. However, if you take some basic security measures then you can keep yourself safe. Never click on links from unknown sources, and don’t download unknown files – especially if they are installers like an .exe file. If you do click on a malware link by accident then disconnect from the internet, kill your browser and reject any downloads that try to start, and run a malware scan. Also use both real time anti malware protection software and a VPN in combination for the best security.
Working as a cyber security solutions architect, Alisa focuses on bug bounty and network security. Before joining us she held a cyber security researcher positions within a variety of cyber security start-ups. She also experience in different industry domains like finance, healthcare and consumer products.