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Known as malware, short for malicious software, it’s coded to damage or exploit a computer, server, mobile device or network. The damage could range from stealing personal information and holding it hostage to imposing bogus charges on phone or data plans. Often, cybercriminals create malware to gain access to your devices so they can spy on your online activity or steal sensitive data.

Malware takes on a variety of forms, including the classic computer viruses and worms that spread by making copies of themselves. Other malware includes adware that displays pop-up ads, scareware that uses phony alarms to trick users into downloading fake antivirus programs and ransomware, which locks up the victim’s system so they can’t access their files or accounts.

Hackers can get malware on your device through email attachments, peer to peer file sharing, web browsing and more. Once on a device, they can spread it to other devices in a network or to other computers and servers using USB sticks or other removable media.

The days when most malware was created by teenage pranksters are long gone. Today, cybercriminals are largely professional criminals who craft malware with specific goals in mind, like earning money, stealing secrets and disrupting businesses or societies.

The most effective way to stop malware is to run a good antivirus program on your device and keep it updated. There are many free anti-virus programs available, and they’re just as good as those you have to pay for.