Do You Know the Difference Between Malware and Spyware?

18 December 2015

What do shopping for groceries, sending cash to your friend, managing your bank accounts and paying bills have in common? You can accomplish all of them easier now than ever with just a few clicks or taps and an internet connection. This convenience has led the world to sign up for banking and ecommerce accounts in droves, storing countless bits of financial information on their computers and online in the process.

In an effort to make these processes as natural as possible, many companies have come up with ways to pull a curtain over financial information and even passwords. For example, instead of entering card information with every purchase or even having to manually log in, Amazon allows those using its smartphone app to pay with just a single tap, which is verified with a fingerprint scan. This has allowed consumers to make transactions with as little thought as possible. As a result, however, it has become easier than ever for consumers to forget just how much of their sensitive data is being stored and used behind the scenes.

While it might be invisible to consumers, fraudsters are all too aware of the valuable information to which our computers have access. To best protect your identity from being stolen by cyber criminals, it’s important to know the different types of software they can use to try to gain access to your computer and steal your information. Here’s a rundown of some terms and tactics you should know:

Malware: Malware is an umbrella term used to describe any “malicious software” that is designed to harm or gain remote access to a computer. Cyber criminals can use malware to do everything from monitoring user behavior, stealing files stored on a computer or remotely accessing the camera or microphone.

Virus: A virus is a type of malware that attaches to a computer program and spreads by copying itself onto other computers. “Information stealers,” such as keyloggers and memoryscrapers are viruses that can uncover your passwords, credit cards numbers or other stored information by capturing what you type or taking screenshots and sending them to identity thieves. Because they often spread from one computer to the next via links in emails, it is especially important to avoid clicking on links from unknown senders or even uncharacteristic links from known contacts.

Spyware: Spyware is a type of malware that collects small pieces of information about users without their knowledge. Spyware is usually installed on a computer and operates completely undetected (like any good spy), all the while observing and collecting various types of information, such as internet surfing habits. Additionally, and far more hazardous to a victim’s security, spyware can also take control of a computer, installing additional software or redirecting Web browser activity without alerting the user. Not only can spyware put your data at risk by rerouting your internet traffic through unsecured networks, but it could can also adjust your privacy or sharing settings.

HackTool: Aptly named, HackTools are pieces of malware that started off as legitimate network administrator tools and have been hijacked to carry out malicious functions for cyber criminals. HackTools include port scanners and sniffers, keystroke loggers and tools for sending spam. For example, keystroke loggers can be used by parents to monitor their children’s computer usage or for employers to ensure employees don’t visit personal websites at work. However, when used covertly by hackers, this HackTool can be used to capture sensitive data such as Social Insurance Numbers, passwords or credit card numbers.

To bolster your computer’s defense against malware, be sure to install antivirus and anti-malware software. While these tools can go a long way toward detecting and preventing your computer from being infected, they are unfortunately unable to detect and eliminate 100 percent of threats. If your personal information is compromised by malware, the best thing you can do is to catch it quickly so that you can stop cyber criminals before they have a chance to do lasting damage to your finances or your borrowing ability.

Consider signing up for a credit monitoring service to get notifications of certain activity on your credit report that could indicate identity theft. It can keep an eye on your credit files when you can’t, enabling you to take quick corrective action if you find fraud.