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Malware is software designed to steal, corrupt or damage your computer, phone or tablet. It’s behind many major cyberattacks, including the massive data breaches that have compromised personal information. It’s also responsible for extortion attacks like ransomware that force victims to pay to regain control of their data. It can hide in innocent-looking programs or in spam emails, or spread through social media or file-sharing networks.

The first step in removing malware is to disconnect your device from the Internet. This will prevent it from communicating with the malware server that may be controlling your machine.

Next, download a tool to help remove the malware. If the malware is persistent, you may need to reinstall your operating system (step 6). Before doing this, make sure that you have back-ups of your files and settings, and consult with an expert if necessary.

Some malware programs, known as worms, reproduce themselves by infecting files and then sending those files to their contacts. They’re especially dangerous because they can bypass security protections and gain access to sensitive data.

Trojan horses are a common source of malware, hiding in benign-looking programs and allowing hackers to take control of your device. They’re often used to steal personal information, including credit card details.

Other types of malware exploit vulnerabilities in hardware, software or networks. Exploits can crack weak passwords, penetrate deep into systems, or compromise entire networks. Peer to peer file sharing networks are also vulnerable to malware, which can be introduced by infected or maliciously modified files shared by unwitting users. Polymorphic malware regularly changes its surface appearance to avoid detection by antivirus software.