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When Malware Trouble Starts: Symptoms (Part 1 of Anti-Malware)

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If working in the IT industry has taught us anything, it is that every day breeds a new adventure, or nightmare in some cases. From routine tasks such as basic Technical Support and Hardware Installation to Network Administration, there is always that one task or duty that will stand your hair on end and bring a productive day to a screeching halt. For me, along with many other users, that task involves identifying and removing malware.

Malware, short for malicious software, is a script or software that is specifically designed to undermine, disrupt, damage, steal or otherwise inflict negative actions against data, computers, networks or networking components. Now, for anyone who works in an IT related field, it may seem a simple or routine task to find, flush out and destroy malware threats, but for the average user it can prove to be a confusing and/or daunting task. What is it?  Where did it come from? How do I get rid of it?  How can I prevent this from happening again?

The first step in removing malware is identification. Since no two threats are the same, we will need to look at your symptoms in order to help classify what type of threat we are dealing with.

Symptoms

My browser was hijacked!
One of the most common malware items you will see involves browser hijacking; also known as web hijacking or homepage hijacking. In this scenario, a web browser, such as Internet Explorer, is the first target. The web browser’s profiles, settings, homepage and/or search providers are targeted and changed in order to redirect a user to another page. Remember how you used to open Internet Explorer and automatically get directed to the Yahoo! News portal, but today you are redirected to a suspicious looking search engine? These types of search engines are notorious for hosting and linking to malware infested sites and download portals. Even the innocent search for “antivirus” could populate hundreds of links to websites and downloads that are specifically designed to damage your system in one way or another. While your computer may not be technically infected at this point (as in the case of webpage related changes), if you don’t fix this situation, you are more likely to be infected at a later date.

Where are all of these pop-ups coming from?
If you have ever browsed the Internet, the odds are that you’re familiar with pop-ups or the ever increasing number of pop-unders. These annoying type of ads can come in many forms, but generally they are trying to entice you to follow a link in order to buy a product or service. Most of the time these type of advertisements are created in order to generate revenue for the author. In other cases, these pop-ups are meant to entice users with a fake offer and lead you to a website that is less than reputable, where your system can be further infected.

My computer is running slow lately!
Another common symptom that may be more noticeable and easier to spot, is the speed of your PC. You used to be able to navigate the web and files on your PC with no issues. Now everything seems to be running slower and will sometimes ‘hang’ and ‘freeze’ or even crash. Most malware that you come across is designed for a specific purpose; however, efficiency is not one of those purposes. The resources that these programs or scripts use can slow your computer down and populate errors in software that used to run with no issues at all.  If you notice a sudden increase in the number of times a program freezes up or even crashes, or your computer slows down while performing routine tasks, you may have a little more serious infection.

This computer has a mind of Its own!
Some of the worst cases of malware present in a very obvious and obnoxious manner, and the computer may act almost as if it had a mind of its own. From programs that will start up or stop without any human interaction, random files appearing on your desktop, files missing from your folders all the way to peripheral malfunctions, such as your printer , sending it out blank pages, while the computer is not even in use. You could be denied access to the Task Manager, receive frequent alerts from your antivirus or firewall about unknown programs or processes that are trying to access the Internet, or even seeing emails sent from your account that you have no knowledge of. You may have even encountered the cursor or mouse pointer moving across the screen for no apparent reason. There are even cases where the computer will restart periodically or shut down after a very short amount of time. Under these circumstances, it is highly likely that you have a malware threat that as infected your system.

What are all of these error messages?
One of the most common types of malware includes the use of error messages in what some refer to as scare tactics.  This type of malware specifically targets users in an effort to scare them into buying a product or service. The advancement in technology behind these types of messages are what lead to their success. Beginner to moderate computer users may not be able to tell the difference between a legitimate error message from their operating system and a malware message. You may find a message that explains: “Your computer has encountered an error! <LINK>”, or “This file is no longer accessible.  Please contact <LINK> for more options.”

Unfortunately, every so often malware will tend to get beyond our defenses, even if we are careful. Maybe your antivirus is out of date or has been compromised by a rogue email attachment. Perhaps you clicked a link on accident which activated a virus or someone else had access to your computer and downloaded malware instead of music from “that file-sharing” site. Whatever the case may be, if you believe that your system may possibly be infected, it is time to take action before things get any worse.

NEXT: What’s the Problem: Malware Identification (Part 2 of Anti-Malware)
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