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Malware is software designed by cyberattackers to exploit a device or network without the owner’s knowledge. It can be used to steal sensitive information, block access to a computer or website, encrypt data and demand a ransom payment or even compromise POS systems for credit card, debit card and PIN numbers, transaction history, and other valuable user and business information.

Cyberattackers can distribute malware through physical and virtual means. USB drives and collaboration tools are common delivery methods, but hackers can also deploy malware through drive-by downloads and by using exploit kits to target vulnerabilities in operating systems, applications and other popular programs.

The first experimental computer viruses began appearing in the 1970s, with the Creeper virus and the more damaging Elk Cloner infecting Apple floppy disks. By the 1980s, more sophisticated worms like Vienna spread across networks and compromised devices.

Viruses are the most common type of malware, but hackers have also developed spyware to collect sensitive information, Trojans that masquerade as legitimate programs and RATs (remote access tools) that enable attackers to control a system remotely. Ransomware is another popular malware variant that encrypts your data and demands a ransom payment to unlock it.

The best way to protect against most types of malware is to keep all your software, operating systems and application updates up-to-date. If you have a suspected malware infection, stay offline as much as possible by turning off Wi-Fi or disconnecting the ethernet cable, and disable your internet router’s firewall.