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Malware, or malicious software, is computer code threat actors use to disrupt the normal functioning of computers and computer networks. It can steal sensitive information, leak critical data or wreak havoc on the system. Malware comes in many forms. Some of it is named for how it spreads (like viruses and worms), while others are named for the purpose they serve: banking trojans allow attackers to drain victims’ bank accounts; keyloggers capture and send usernames, passwords, credentials and personal information to attackers; RATs (remote access tools) enable remote users to exploit infected systems.

Viruses are the most familiar type of malware. They hide snippets of their code within clean executable programs and wait for an unsuspecting user to execute them. Once executed, they will start replicating themselves and infecting systems. Viruses are also capable of attacking specific hardware or operating systems. For example, the Petya ransomware attack encrypts the master boot record of Microsoft Windows-based systems and denies access to data until a payment is made in bitcoin.

As computer hardware became more affordable and widely available to the general public, hacker communities began forming worldwide. Over time, these communities started to focus on making money from their activities. New high-level programming languages were created, and hacker communities started focusing on writing malicious code to automate cybercrime and make money.

As malware development became more lucrative, white-collar crime began to grow in popularity as a career choice for criminals. In addition to making money from ransomware attacks, sextortion and intellectual property theft, hackers also used malware for industrial espionage. Often, they would install keyloggers and RATs on point-of-sale (POS) systems to capture credit card and debit card information.