People sometimes imagine that hackers are very talented shadowy figures who gain access to your computer by using cryptic techniques, like a skilled lock picker. Sometimes people imagine that said hacker might be somebody in their neighborhood who is “really good with computers”. Actually, reality is much more mundane. Most hackers don’t live anywhere near you and they usually gain access to your computer by a much simpler technique, getting you to open the door and invite them in.
The general name for things that are bad on your computer is “malicious software” or malware, for short. Malware includes viruses and other bad stuff. One way to categorize them is by what they do. Here are some examples.
Advertising: Some malware is designed to gain access to your e-mail then take over your contact list so they can send spam to them. Browser hijack viruses redirect you to a website or search page that has advertisements that make money for the hacker. Adware floods your computer with unwanted ads.
Theft: Many kinds of malware try to retrieve sensitive information from your computer like the password to your banking site or identifying personal information about you. For obvious reasons.
Extortion: Ransomware shuts down your computer until you pay money to the hacker. Institutions that have large databases they need to access to function are frequent targets of ransomware attacks.
Punishment: Denial of Service attacks target websites belonging to companies or other organizations that the hacker doesn’t like. They shut down the website for awhile but don’t do any other damage.
Control: Malware that enlists your computer in a botnet makes your computer available to the hacker for any purpose that he or she needs a large amount of computing power for, like sending a lot of spam, conducting a Denial of Service attack or even mining Bitcoin.
So how does malware get into your computer? Reason No. 1: Clicking on a link in an email or on a website. A link name on your computer screen is just a label. The real link is in the underlying code. A hacker can just “paste” a new label on it–so that clicking on facebook.com might take you instead to congratulationsyou’vebeenhacked.com. The email will typically even look like it came from somebody you know. Clicking on a link on a malicious website can do the same thing.
Reason No.2: “Free” downloads. Be very careful before you download anything! Sometimes it’s malicious and at other times the real download button will be overshadowed by a much bigger one that downloads something you don’t want.
Reason No.3: Clicking on an enticing ad that takes you to a website loaded with malware.
Reason No 4: Clicking on an official looking warning that you need to do something. Even clicking on a button that says “close” or “cancel” on the warning might infect you. Remember, what you see on the screen is just a label for a set of coded instructions underneath!
Probably you’ve noticed the word that keeps coming up here: CLICK. The most common way that people get malware that is annoying, steals their money or disables their computer is by putting it in the computer themselves. So the first rule to protect yourself from these problems is to THINK BEFORE YOU CLICK. Don’t open the door and invite a hacker in.