How to Protect Personal Data and Avoid Malware

Mohammed Emran /
shutterstock 421570105

Online safety is an aspect of day-to-day life that we cannot ignore. Personal data is everywhere and sometimes it’s exposed to dangerous third parties without our knowledge. 

Data breaches are a real thing and the thing to keep in mind is that they affect everyone, not just executives in big corporations.

Because we find our personal data in so many places, whenever data breaches happen at companies like Amazon or Facebook, our personal information, such as emails, passwords, and addresses, is exposed along with everyone else’s. 

Anyone can be the victim of a data breach or a data leak. Unfortunately, as convenient as it’s become to be completely remote and be able to do so much through our computers, that also puts us at risk for cyberattacks and malware. 

Malware is a computer virus that is often used as a form of a cyberattack. It’s actually very easy to fall prey to this trick because it simply involves clicking on a link. 

Criminals typically install malware through the download of a file that is malicious. This can happen by clicking on a suspicious link or going to a website that is not secure. 

Once downloaded, the criminal behind the malware in your computer can spy on your online activities and have access to passwords, accounts, credit card numbers, and much more. 

Cybersecurity is just as important as locking doors at home or being extra careful with how you share information with other people. 

There are a lot of things you can start doing now to enhance your online security at home and making sure that you don’t become yet another victim of fraud or unwanted exposure. 

What Is Malware?

Malware is basically a virus that is installed in your device without your knowledge and gives criminals access to all your personal activity, information, and data. 

There are multiple types of malware that criminals apply to entice people into their schemes by simply clicking on links that will allow the virus to enter your computer and expose your privacy to the dark web. 

Malware is one of the biggest threats today to online security and, as mentioned earlier, anyone can fall victim to this terrible scam and invasion of privacy. 

Despite computers being able to better combat malware, there are plenty of ways criminals can view sensitive information on your computer. 

In previous years, the easiest way for malware to show up in your system was through the illegal download of movies or music. This was popular in the era before iPods and more advanced security technology. 

However, even today, you might still get phishing emails that seem authentic enough for you to open and unknowingly create a portal for criminals to access privileged information saved on your computer or device. 

Common Types of Malware

Malware doesn’t refer to just one type of attack. There are multiple types of malware out there that you should familiarize yourself with in case you suspect something, or someone, is peeking around in your computer files. 

  • Virus – The purpose of a virus is to multiply and infect as much as possible so that criminals can steal as much of your information as possible. The way they work is by replicating itself from folder to folder once it’s activated. It inserts its own code so that it’s difficult to stop right away and it can lock your entire system down.
  • Adware – Just like the name suggests, this type of malware involves ads. Though there’s less of a chance that this type of malware will steal your personal information, hackers and criminals use it to distract the user. You will start noticing ads—from small pop-ups to entire banners filling up your screen—show up every time you open the computer and try to surf the web.
  • Ransomware – This is the malware of choice for criminals. It’s the one that’s most commonly used in big data breaches and even in small organizations or individual users. Ransomware encrypts users’ data and blocks accounts until you pay a ransom to the criminal. This is a type of malware that is easy to fall prey to because it’s often sent through a link or an email.
  • Spyware – This is a malicious software that, once installed in your device, will monitor all of your online activity and easily extract and save online passwords, IDs, bank account and credit card numbers. It’s basically the same thing as someone standing over you and watching everything you’re doing at all times.
  • Trojan – This type of malware is sometimes tricky to spot because it disguises itself as actual software that’s supposed to protect you against threats. This is more of a quiet type of malware, as it’s not as obvious as the other examples. It usually tricks users by presenting itself as a free security upgrade or an anti-virus software. Once it’s installed, it steals all sensitive information in the most subtle way. 

Signs You Have Malware

As you can see, not every type of malware is obvious to a user. Remember, criminals are very astute and clever. It’s not in their best interest for you to figure out what they’re doing right away. It’s in their interest to buy time and prolong their stay in your device. 

If you suspect that there may be malware in your computer, here’s what you should look for:

  1. Sudden system crashes or the computer acting slower can be signs that there is malware present. Especially nowadays, it’s rare for computers to act slow or crash without a reason.
  2. Even though you might not be in the habit of checking your “Sent” folder in your email, it might not be a bad idea to look at it every once in a while. If you notice that there have been emails sent without your knowledge or permission, it’s possible there’s malware present.
  3. A computer that doesn’t allow you to shut down or restart is a definite sign of infection. Sometimes criminals make use of certain types of malware that will allow them to lock your device so that they have more time to steal information.
  4. Pop-ups should not be something you have to deal with in modern computers. As previously mentioned, devices now come with a lot of security updates that were not available 20 years ago when the Internet boomed. If you’re noticing a lot of pop-ups or ads to things you don’t remember ever clicking, malware is present.
  5. Everyone has a preferred search engine. However, if you notice that when you open a browser, the search engine is not the same that you use, there’s a chance there could be malware present in your device. Phones, tablets, and computers are all very smart. Once they figure out a user’s preference, they stick to it. If you’re opening a browser to something that looks unfamiliar, definitely do not ignore it. 

Ways to Enhance Personal Data Protection

Now that you probably have a much better understanding of malware and the ways it can unknowingly affect your personal information, it’s time to go over everything that you can do to enhance your personal data protection and make sure that you’re not affected by criminal activity.

  • Creating strong passwords is more important than you think. Yes, of course, it’s a little annoying to change them or to come up with something complicated enough for anyone to decipher, including you. However, start thinking about passwords as the key and lock to your personal information.
    Malware continues to evolve and become more advanced, so the need for stronger passwords is imminent. Devices now offer suggestions for strong passwords so that users don’t have to worry about them. Make sure that, if you will not allow the system to save the password, you write it down somewhere.
  • Be wary of unfamiliar links, attachments, or emails from unknown senders. Clicking on something unfamiliar is the easiest way for malware to install itself in your device and steal information. Even if you receive an email that looks to be from someone you know but looks a little weird, it’s better to just delete it and not open it. You can always ask that person to corroborate whether they really sent you something by email. Malware could have infected their computer or compromised their accounts and they don’t know it yet.
  • Use free Wi-Fi with care and caution. Remember, when you’re sitting at Starbucks and use their Wi-Fi, while it is incredibly convenient, it’s also not safe. It’s always advised to not log into any sites containing bank information or to make any types of online payments while logged into a free Wi-Fi network. If you’re not entirely sure of the network’s protection, it’s safer to not use it at all except for simple browsing.
  • Checking to see if the website you’re using is secure should always happen before going down the rabbit hole in your search for the perfect item. Easiest way to do this is by making sure that there is a lock symbol at the top of your browser and that the URL starts with “https.” If neither of those two things are there, do not engage in any browsing, and much less any shopping. 

One last bit of advice. Because technology and security protocols are constantly changing, it’s important to keep up with the best ways to protect personal data every once in a while. At least a few times a year, browse around and see in which ways you can enhance your online security. Your information is valuable and sensitive and not everyone should have access to it.