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A malware attack is any software that’s designed to harm your computer. Viruses, ransomware, trojans, worms, spyware and even rootkits all fall under this broad category of malicious software. The term was coined by cybersecurity analyst Yisrael Radai in 1990, but malware has been around for much longer.

Generally, threats use malware to gain remote access to computers and systems, leak private information, cause disruption or extort money. The damage that these attacks can cause ranges from sabotage to cyberwarfare and international espionage. Malware can steal files or erase records, paralyze companies and governments, or infect entire networks.

There are a wide variety of ways that your computer might get infected with malware, but the most common are clicking on suspicious links or opening attachments. Some malware spreads from peer to peer (P2P) file sharing programs, others through popular collaboration tools and others by leveraging vulnerabilities in OS and application software. Physical and virtual means can also deliver malware, such as USB drives, email, text messages and web ads.

When a device gets infected with malware, you may notice the operating system is acting up or that your browser keeps rerouting to unwanted web ads. You might also see a spike in your CPU and GPU usage, as well as an abnormally high rate of RAM and disk activity. Some malware also encrypts your data and displays a message demanding money for the decryption key. Other malware, like adware, creates revenue by bombarding your screen with unwanted advertisements. This type of malware also piggybacks on free programs or browser toolbars, and can gather information about your computing habits to target you with specific ads.