Virus vs. malware: what's the difference?

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Judit Llordés
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Malware includes all forms of threats to your system, including viruses. Sometimes the terms malware and virus are used interchangeably. However, there are subtle differences you should know to better protect yourself from both.

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Virus vs. malware: what's the difference?

With the applications available that scan and monitor your computer for viruses or malware, it's hard to know if you're fully protected. What is Malware? The term malware is an umbrella term that covers almost every online threat your computer or smartphone faces. These include:

  • Virus: what is a virus? A virus is a program that, once downloaded, runs and attempts to spread throughout the system by replacing or modifying other software on the computer, such as critical system files.
  • Trojan: a Trojan is a hidden program as a useful application. However, embedded in the code of that program it tries to steal files or data from the system.
  • Worm: A worm is a program embedded in another infected host file, such as a Word or Excel document. This program spreads from one computer to another, wherever the hosts file is downloaded. Its actions, such as stealing data or files, are similar to Trojans.
  • BackdoorBackdoor malware is typically used against web servers running components with existing security vulnerabilities. The vulnerabilities allow remote “injection” of the malware script, which remains on the server and allows hackers to remotely access the system and its folders and files.
  • exploits: Exploit malware is an application written specifically to exploit a known vulnerability in software running on the system. These are often known as zero-day exploits because they attack software vulnerabilities that have been identified but not yet patched.
  • Adware: Adware is an application designed to only show advertisements while using your computer, typically when using your web browser. They are most commonly included with browser add-ons.
  • Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUPs): A PUP is an application that usually comes as an add-on program when you install the software you actually want to install. This can include a browser toolbar, adware, or even a bitcoin app. The effect of a PUP is typically using CPU usage without your knowledge.

Malware encompasses the entire family of threats your computer faces, while viruses are just a family of that threat.

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Do antivirus apps protect you from all malware?

Do all antivirus applications protect you from all forms of malware? The answer is yes and no.

Antivirus applications are also known as an "on-access" tool that scans downloaded files or websites visited for threats each time they are accessed.

All major antivirus software vendors make it clear that their software protects you from all forms of malware.

While it's true that your antivirus software will protect you from malware it detects on your PC (or when you try to download a file), it won't always protect you from emerging threats, such as zero-day exploits.

For this level of protection, you need additional “on demand” software that you can run frequently and that updates immediately whenever such threats are found.

An example of such software is Malwarebytes.

Malwarebytes is an on-demand malware scanning tool. It does not focus on actively preventing virus installation on your PC. Instead it will scan your system for zero-day exploits, adware, and even the latest PUPs that may be causing performance-related issues on your system.

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How to protect your computer from all malware

The best approach to ensure that your computer is not infected with any form of malware is to use a three-tier system.

  1. Enable Windows Defender: Select the Windows Start menu and type Windows Defender. Select the Windows Defender settings and then select Open Windows Security. Make sure all check marks are green. Take the suggested measures to make sure each item has a green tick.

  2. Enable Windows Firewall: In the left navigation pane, select Firewall and network protection. Make sure the status of the firewall either active in all three types of networks. If it is not active, turn on the firewall.

  3. Install antivirus software- For the second level of protection, choose and install one of the many free antivirus applications available. You also need to install antivirus apps for Android, as well as antivirus apps for Mac. You may need to restart your computer to complete the installation.

  4. Enable antivirus self-defense: in the menu Settings antivirus, you'll usually find one self defense function o self-protection. This ensures that the antivirus software cannot disable the antivirus app and remove its protection. Make sure this feature is enabled.

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  5. Install the malware scanning softwareThese applications are also known as on-demand virus scanners. They are typically updated immediately with zero-day exploits and will ensure your computer is free of the latest threats. Install one of these apps and run a full system scan.

  6. Set up on-demand scan schedule- To make sure you are always protected from all forms of malware, set the on-demand scanner to a regular scan schedule. You can usually find it in Scan o Settings. One scan per day is usually sufficient, but if desired, you can set the software to scan multiple times a day.

    Many people set their daily scans to run at night or very early in the morning when the computer is not in use. This is a throwback to when antivirus programs were resource eaters and caused a dramatic system slowdown during a scan. It is not a bad practice to scan at night, but if you shut down the system at night… you can usually schedule them for daylight hours with a light consumption of resources without noticing too many differences in reaction times.

  7. Enable automatic updates. In both antivirus and antimalware applications, check the settings section and make sure that Application updates are set to Automatic. This ensures that the moment zero-day exploits are identified, you will receive the update that will protect your system from them.

After completing all these steps, you will have three solid levels of security protection on your system. This will greatly reduce the chances that any form of malware, be it a worm, virus, or adware, will ever infect your computer.

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Further Reading:

  • What is a trojan virus?
  • How to delete malware from Windows 10 PC
  • Overheating problems for the Galaxy A20
  • Overheating problems for the Galaxy A40
  • How to remove advertisements that pop up on their own

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