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Malware is a general term that encompasses any software that can cause disruption to computer systems, leak private information, gain unauthorized access to network systems or otherwise compromise the security of devices and networks. There are many different types of malware – from computer viruses and worms to Trojan horses, ransomware, spyware, adware and more. The days when most malware was created by teenage pranksters are long gone – today, the vast majority of malware is designed and distributed by professional criminals looking to steal or manipulate data or make money from users.

Cyber criminals distribute malware via a variety of physical and virtual means. It can be as simple as an infected file attachment in an email or as complex as a malicious macro in an Office document. Malware can also be injected into mobile apps, social media and instant messaging, or spread through drive-by downloads that automatically install programs without user consent or knowledge. In addition, there are exploits that target specific bugs and vulnerabilities in a system – such as zero-day exploits – for which no available defense or fix exists.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the risk of infection. The most important step is to be vigilant. Keep your operating system up to date and never click on a link in an unsolicited or suspicious email. Also, avoid using your computer for banking or shopping, and do not enter passwords or personal information into a device that is unprotected.