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Antivirus scours files, programs, and memory for signs of malware that can damage your computer or steal sensitive data. Antivirus software protects you from both existing threats by scanning for known malware signatures and new ones by using innovative technologies to identify sketchy behavior and stop attacks in their tracks.

Most antivirus programs use a combination of methods to detect malicious files, including traditional signature-based detection, heuristic analysis, and behavioral monitoring. Signature-based detection compares a file or program to an extensive database of malware signatures, flagging them as potentially malicious if there is a match. Heuristic analysis looks at a file’s characteristics and behavior in real-time to identify suspicious activities that may be indicative of malware. Behavioral monitoring watches programs in action to identify and stop suspicious activity, like modifying or deleting files, monitoring keystrokes, and changing settings on other programs.

Many modern AV programs also employ cloud analysis, which uses the vendor’s servers to scan for and test new malware strains. This is one of the most effective ways to stop new viruses and malware variants that have not yet been identified by a vendor’s virus detection database.

Some for-purchase antivirus programs also come with additional benefits that address more modern concerns, like checking to see if customers’ passwords were included in a recent dump of stolen credentials or telling you if criminals are selling your personal information on the Dark Web. However, no single app can catch every bit of malware, so it’s important to combine your antivirus protection with other security tools, like secure passwords, two-factor authentication, data encryption, systemwide backups, and smart privacy tools added to your browser. In addition, be sure to practice good cybersecurity hygiene, such as only downloading programs from the official Apple App Store or Google Play Store and not opening email attachments from untrusted sources.