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Malware attacks are on the rise. The number of security breaches through the third quarter of 2021 was already up 17% from 2020, according to Identity Theft Resource Center.

The increasing digitization of businesses and whole industries over the previous few decades has emboldened black-hat actors and made organizations more susceptible to attack. The prevalence of malware attacks has skyrocketed since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 when many organizations moved their operations completely online.

Many businesses don’t take malware attacks seriously until it’s far too late. Contrary to what many believe, malicious actors don’t just target organizations with deep pockets — they cast wide nets and exploit any vulnerabilities they find.

For that reason, it’s important for every organization to understand the basics of malware attacks: what they are, the common malware types and what to do to prevent them from happening.

What is malware and why is it important to understand?

Malware, or malicious software, is a type of software designed to intentionally cause damage to computers, systems, servers and networks, typically (but not exclusively) to extract some form of monetary payment from the owner.

It’s important for individuals and organizations to understand malware attacks. The incidence and success rate of these security breaches have been on the rise in recent years, making them one of the biggest — yet most preventable — expenses for businesses. Ransomware attacks alone were projected to cost businesses a total of $20 billion in 2021, according to Forbes.

They can put enormous financial strain on organizations, erode trust in their brand and ultimately cause permanent damage that they may struggle to recover from.

The most common malware types

There are numerous different types of malware, each with their own attack profiles, objectives and even end-goals. Here are the most common:

Trojan

This form of malware tricks unsuspecting users into downloading and configuring apparently legitimate software applications. Once the program has been executed, the trojan installs the malware into the host system and begins exfiltrating data and encrypting passwords.

Spyware

Spyware can be one of the most harmful types of malware because in the event of an attack users are often unaware that their servers have been infected. Spyware can enter a system in a variety of different ways, including an app installation, downloading malicious attachments or visiting a malicious website. Once inside, spyware runs in the background of the device, collecting reams of user information and relaying this to third parties.

Ransomware

Ransomware attacks have grown exponentially in recent years, making them one of the most lucrative sources of income for cybercriminals. This style of cybersecurity breach happens in a number of ways, but the most common attack vector is through phishing emails.

Unsuspecting users receive prompts to exchange personal information, usually through an email from a purported trusted source. Cybercriminals use this information to penetrate networks, encrypt sensitive data and, ultimately, demand huge ransoms from their victims.

Adware

Among the least harmful types of malware, adware works by bombarding users with pop-up ads paid for by third parties. Although adware is typically more of a nuisance to users than a serious threat to their private information, failure to remove adware could lead to browser slowdown that may eventually render the device inoperable. Adware programs usually gain access to devices after a user downloads a malicious program.

Worms

Computer worms infect devices by exploiting security vulnerabilities and replicating themselves to infect other devices. Unfortunately, even after the device owner has identified and removed the worm, most of the damage might already be done. The primary objective of the worm is to remain on the host server for as long as possible and infect as many other systems as it can, so even if users have recovered the initial device, many others in their network will likely already be infected.

Fileless malware

Fileless malware attacks are one of the latest, more sophisticated means hackers use to penetrate systems. This malware type gains access to the host computer system through legitimate software or applications downloaded via a malicious link, usually through email. Fileless attacks operate strictly in memory, leaving no digital footprint and making it extremely difficult for security systems to detect them.

How can malware impact businesses

In many cases, malware is more than a straightforward problem that businesses can quickly pay to have fixed and removed. At its worst, malware can infect entire networks and steal huge sums of sensitive data information, requiring costly interventions to remediate.

Even when handled successfully, the impact of malware attacks can permanently damage a business’s operations, brand image and revenue flows. Here are some of the ways malware can affect organizations:

  • Slows operations: One of the hallmarks of a malware infection from the user perspective is that devices and browsers become so slow they’re rendered almost inoperable. In worst-case scenarios, malware can make critical systems and data completely inaccessible, meaning employees are unable to use the devices and access the programs they need to do their jobs.
  • Damages customer relationships: Business relationships in the digital economy are founded on trust. Customers share huge amounts of their personal data with the brands they buy from, and that means data privacy is a top priority. When companies are subject to a malware attack, it demonstrates to customers that they aren’t taking the right precautions to protect data, potentially signaling to them that they’re careless with their private information. This can have a permanent effect on trust and brand reputation.
  • Depletes resources: Probably the most obvious and harmful effect of malware attacks, malicious actors often demand massive sums of cash to decrypt sensitive information. Although security experts strongly advise against it, many companies simply choose to pay the ransom and hope the problem goes away. Even if they heed the warning, they will often still have to pay huge amounts to recover lost data and undo the damage to their brand.
  • Creates more vulnerabilities: Most malware attacks work by either stealing sensitive information, gathering data in the background of regular browsing sessions, or encrypting account login credentials. Even if an organization keeps backups of its sensitive information (which is a key part of any recovery effort), malicious actors will often retain access to stolen information, which they could use to advance other nefarious purposes.

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How to identify and prevent malware attacks

Understanding what a malware infection is and how it can affect businesses is the necessary starting point. Even more important, however, is knowing how to identify when an attack has taken place and what steps security analysts can take to maximize their organization’s resistance to security breaches. While specific identifiers don’t necessarily apply to all types of attacks, there are a few obvious ones worth noting. These include:

  • Pop-up ads: Adware infects devices and enables third parties to push advertisements to browsers. If you’re being bombarded with pop-up ads on a near minute-to-minute basis, that’s a telltale sign that your device has been infected by malware.
  • Browser slowdown: Malware attaches itself to your device’s internal systems and uses them to fuel its malicious activity. Over time, this can cause your browser to slow substantially below normal levels. If your devices are operating much slower than normal or are frequently crashing, that could be a sign of malware.
  • Ransom demands: Probably the most outward (and obvious) sign that you’ve been subject to a malware attack, unknown actors claiming to have encrypted your data information are sending you ransom demands. “It’s never advised to pay to resolve a ransomware attack as doing so encourages further criminal activity and there is no guarantee that you will get your stolen data back.”
  • Unusual activity: As PC users become more adept at identifying and preventing malware attacks, malicious actors have developed more subtle ways to infect host computers. Any activity that seems especially unusual — like getting ads on government websites or an inability to remove certain software — is likely a sign of a malware attack.
  • Losing account access: Particularly in the case of a ransomware attack, hackers will steal login credentials and demand a ransom in exchange for decryption keys. If you’ve lost access to some of your accounts — especially critical ones like banking accounts — it’s likely you’ve been subject to a malware attack.

The better hackers get at penetrating devices, the more difficult malware detection is. Even if you don’t detect any unusual activity on your network or device, it’s still important to be on guard to ensure malware isn’t secretly stealing sensitive information in the background of your browsing session.

Malware prevention

The most effective way to handle a malware attack is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Many organizations believe malware prevention requires comprehensive — and expensive — security procedures and protocols. While security systems are a necessary component of any effective prevention system, organizations can make major progress simply by instituting a series of best practices.

  • Keep backups: Successful malware attacks rely on gaining exclusive access to your data, so keeping backups is one of the most effective ways to thwart malware attacks. Make sure you’re backing up your data as frequently as possible and, ideally, storing it in secure, offsite storage locations. In the event of a malware attack, you won’t have to rebuild your data infrastructure from the ground up, saving precious time, money and stress.
  • Educate users: User error is one of the most common and easily exploitable attack vectors. Unsuspecting end-users may inadvertently click links or download files from senders they believe they know, unintentionally executing malicious software. Ensure that all your employees are properly educated about best practices, including teaching them how to identify suspicious emails or online requests, and instituting stricter password policies.
  • Invest in a malware scanner: Preventative measures like keeping backups and educating users are key, but sometimes the worst happens. When it does, it’s important that you’ve invested in robust security software to identify when a malware attack has taken place so you can take quick action to keep it from causing permanent damage.
  • Configure a firewall: It’s important to invest in a comprehensive firewall to block unauthorized users from accessing your systems to protect against a wide range of malware attacks.

Malware attacks are on the rise, and even after the pandemic subsides, the transition to hybrid work environments will continue to expose organizations to risk. Businesses need to be prepared with the latest solutions and technology to enhance their security posture and protect their sensitive information from attack.

That starts with having the right team of cybersecurity professionals on your side. Alert Logic’s global Security Operations Center (SOC) experts monitor your systems 24/7 and leverage a diverse range of data collection and analytics methods for rapid threat detection. The comprehensive coverage provide by our Managed Detection and Response (MDR) solution utilizes a combination of people, processes and tools to reduce the likelihood of successful attack and also and minimize the impact of any successful malware attack or breach through rapid detection as well as the notification and guidance you need to respond in case an attack does occur.

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Rod Mercado
About the Author
Rod Mercado
Rod Mercado is a Senior Product Marketing Manager at Alert Logic where he drives strategy and enables sales and partner teams around Managed Detection and Response (MDR). In his 20-year career in the IT industry, he has held roles at Forcepoint, Dell Technologies, IBM, and Hewlett Packard. Based in Austin, Texas, Rod is passionate about technology and communicating Alert Logic’s value to current and prospective customers.

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