Editor's note: This article was originally written by Zac Mutrux and updated by Elliot Harmon.
Computer security threats can make the Internet a dangerous place. If your nonprofit or library doesn't have tools to protect itself from malicious software (or "malware"), the Internet can pose a serious risk to your organization. Consider these facts:
- Symantec identified over 3 billion malware attacks worldwide in 2010
- McAfee said the first quarter of 2011 was the busiest quarter ever for malware
Why does this happen so often? Stealing and selling personal information, banking and credit card details, and intellectual property is lucrative business. Malicious software can also hijack your computer to send spam messages, display advertisements, or perform other illegal activities.
Methods for infecting computers with malicious software are often quite sophisticated. Malicious software can spread through legitimate-looking files, links, or websites. Criminals can even buy inexpensive "attack toolkits," making cybercrime easy and inexpensive to commit.
It's important for nonprofits and libraries to understand these threats and learn how to protect themselves. This article provides an overview of malware threats, suggestions for preventing infection using antivirus and anti-spyware software, and steps to take if you suspect your computer is infected.
What Is Malware?
Malware is a combination of the words "malicious" and "software." It is often used as a catchall term for threats such as viruses, spyware, adware, and other software installed without a user's consent or knowledge.
Malware can get into your system in various ways, including (but by no means limited to):
- Infected email attachments
- Infected removable storage media like portable thumbnail drives
- Downloaded software, including mobile apps
- Links in email, social media websites, or instant messages
Some categories of malware are:
- Viruses are a kind of self-replicating software that can slow down or cripple systems, and destroy or alter data.
- Spyware is software that spies on computer users' activity to steal passwords, online banking credentials, and other personal information. A "keylogger" records what you type and sends it back to a cyberthief.
- Adware displays annoying pop-up ads.
- Scareware mimics a legitimate antivirus or anti-spyware service, saying a computer has been infected, then encouraging users to download (and pay for) a fake security solution. The downloaded software is usually spyware.
- Botnets are networks of infected computers used for illegal activities, such as sending spam emails or "denial of service" attacks.
Which Organizations Need to Worry About Malware?
You may be wondering if your nonprofit or library needs to worry about malware. The answer is a resounding yes! It's not just big businesses or government organizations that need to protect themselves. Any organization of any size can be a victim of malware.
Think about it: Your constituents, volunteers, and donors entrust their personal information with you. If you're not taking steps to secure your data, including using antivirus and anti-spyware software, their information may not be safe. Information security breaches can have major legal and financial ramifications.
How Antivirus and Anti-Spyware Software Works
Both antivirus and anti-spyware software monitor your computer for potential threats. They can often automatically quarantine suspected malware before it damages your system. Usually, the program will notify you when it quarantines a potential threat. You can then delete the suspicious software.
Most antivirus and anti-spyware tools identify suspicious software based on a list of known threats, called "definitions." Definitions are updated when new threats appear, and usually you can download these updates automatically. Up-to-date definitions allow programs to recognize and stop new threats. Some antivirus and anti-spyware software can also recognize "malware-like" features to prevent infection by new, undocumented malware.
Preventing Infection with Antivirus and Anti-Spyware Software
To reiterate: Antivirus and anti-spyware software are basic tools that no organization can do without.
That doesn't mean, however, that more is always better. You don't need a lot of tools; you just need a few good ones. Installing too many antivirus or anti-spyware tools can actually slow your computer down.
We recommend that you equip every computer in your organization with a comprehensive antivirus program and a separate anti-spyware program.
The tools you choose will depend in part on the size of your organization:
- Very small organizations with only a few computers: Install individual antivirus and anti-spyware software on every computer.
- Organizations with 10-20 computers: Consider using a security suite. A suite allows you to administer software centrally, rather than dealing with each computer separately.
- Organizations with more than 20 computers: Consider enterprise-level tools. Enterprise-level tools also allow centralized administration of definition updates and other tasks, as well as providing additional security tools appropriate for bigger organizations.
Suggested Antivirus and Anti-Spyware Software
There are many low-cost or free options available:
Using a separate anti-spyware tool will help protect against a broader range of threats. Each company maintains its own threat list, and no company's list is complete. MalwareBytes is a good free tool.
As with any software decision, you should do your research beforehand. The Additional Resources can help you find more information.
What to Do if You Suspect Infection
There is no guaranteed way to keep malware out. Installing and using antivirus and anti-spyware software is a good start. But what does it look like when these tools fail? And what can you do about it?
The following might indicate your computer is infected with malware:
- Lots of pop-up windows or unexpected messages on-screen
- Unexpected toolbars appear in your web browser
- New icons or programs appear on your computer
- Your web browser home page changes or you are redirected unexpectedly to unknown websites
- Your computer suddenly seems slow, freezes, or crashes during basic tasks
If you suspect infection, you should:
- Download the most recent definitions for your antivirus and anti-spyware software
- Run a full scan using both tools (this will usually be much more in-depth and will take longer than the regular monitoring scans)
- Follow the software's instructions to remove suspected malware
- Reboot your computer, if necessary
If removing malware this way doesn't work, or if the malware returns when you reboot your computer, you should seek professional help.
No organization can do without antivirus and anti-spyware software. New threats are emerging all the time, so you should always download up-to-date definitions from your software provider. While nothing is a guarantee against infection, antivirus and anti-spyware software can go a long way towards helping protect your organization.
Finally, using antivirus and anti-spyware software is only part of a comprehensive security plan. The additional resources listed below can help you dig deeper.
Image: Spyware, Shutterstock