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Just like the human flu, malware is a disease that attacks PCs, tablets, smartphones and enterprise networks. Malware aims to infect and take partial control of systems, steal data or money, or encrypt files. Unlike the flu, there’s no seasonal pattern for malware outbreaks, and attacks can come from anywhere. Hackers and cybercriminals use malware for a variety of purposes, including cyberwarfare, international espionage, ransomware extortion, stealing your personal information or your identity, and more.

Some of the most well-known forms of malware are adware, spyware, trojans and viruses. Adware and spyware are unwanted programs that throw pop-ups and windows at you in the web browser, often hiding behind a legitimate program (like an antivirus program). Trojans, which are also called “Trojan horses,” represent themselves as useful programs, but they give attackers unauthorized access to your device or network. Viruses are self-replicating programs that infect other computer programs by inserting bits of their code into them.

Attackers spread malware through a variety of channels, including phishing emails, malicious websites, and infected USB drives. They exploit weaknesses in the operating systems of popular devices, such as the way that apps load and run on phones and tablets. If you see a sudden increase in your phone’s data usage, for example, that may indicate an infection by malware. Similarly, if you notice strange messages from your contacts in a messaging app, it could be a sign of an IM worm. If your phone’s screen is suddenly filled with a message demanding payment, that’s ransomware.