Over 40 years ago the first computer virus was unleashed onto the world. Since then, cyber attacks have kept pace with technological advancements. There now exists a multitude of malware threats that can cause significant damage to your devices and IT systems. Despite the chaos these attacks can create, a malware infection isn’t always obvious. Cyber criminals are notoriously sneaky, disguising their work and burying malware deep within device systems until it’s nearly impossible to identify (let alone get rid of).
Nevertheless, there are a few warning signs that indicate your device may be infected with malware. Early detection and intervention can greatly reduce the risk of your data and accounts becoming compromised, so it’s of the utmost importance that you heed these warnings.
Warning Signs That Your Device Is Infected With Malware
1. Your Device is Running Slowly and/or Frequently Crashing
Devices may start operating slowly for a number of reasons and this doesn’t always necessarily point to a malware infection. Perhaps you’re running a memory-intensive program or application? Or have a number of internet browser tabs open at once? Maybe your device is just old and parts needs replacing? However, if your device begins acting sluggish, freezing or even crashing and you can’t pinpoint a reason…malware may be the culprit. Malware often runs in the background, eating up system resources and causing the operating system, applications, software and internet connection to slow down dramatically.
2. Pop Ups Won’t Stop Popping Up
One of the most nefarious versions of malware is spyware. Spyware is exactly what it sounds like: it spies on you in order to collect your personal information (such as passwords, financial details, location, browsing habits, etc), without your consent. Pop up ads and unexpected dialogue windows are often spyware in disguise. Spyware is known to mimic legitimate programs and businesses in order to deceive the intended victim. One of the most common examples is a fake virus or threat detection warning that urges you to click a link or call a customer service number. These pop ups are annoyingly relentless and difficult to close.
3. Your Internet Browser is Being Re-Directed
Has your browser’s homepage changed? Has an unfamiliar toolbar appeared? Are you being redirected to random webpages when surfing the web? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you might have malware. These strange happenings are usually indicative that you’ve unintentionally downloaded something nefarious or perhaps clicked on a pop up you shouldn’t have. Not every redirect will cause you harm. Accidental clicks on legitimate ads do happen after all. However, if you find that you’re entering a known website URL and being redirected to a completely foreign page, then odds are that you’ve got malware. Redirection may not be entirely obvious either. For example, a banking Trojan is a type of malware that redirects its victims from their banking institutions webpage to one that is indistinguishable, with the only notable difference being the URL in the address bar. The malware then records the individual’s login details, thus allowing cyber criminals to access their financial accounts. While this may seem scary, remember that redirection relies on browser extensions. So if you’re at all worried that you’ve been exposed to malware, all you have to do is open your browser settings and disable (or better yet delete) the extensions that you didn’t deliberately install.
4. Your Hard Drive Space Suddenly Changes Dramatically
Has your available disk space drastically increased or decreased? A sudden shift in your hard drive capacity can be an indication of a malware infection. For example, malware is known to ruthlessly delete files and software, therefore increasing the amount of unused hard drive space. On the other hand, malware (like any software) takes up hard drive space. Some malware may even copy existing files or introduce new ones into your device’s system. They are usually difficult to detect, using generic and seemingly innocuous file names. “Disk-bombs” are one such example. These self-replicating viruses and worms will devastate your device by rapidly filling the hard drive with copies of itself. In many cases, these copies are undetectable when using the default settings for file browsing.
5. Missing, Altered or Corrupted Files
As we’ve just pointed out, changes to your files can be one of the biggest red flags that malware has infected your device. If you notice that your files and/or folders are missing, corrupted or altered without explanation then you may have a serious issue on your hands. Ransomware (another type of malware program) encrypts your files (including pictures, documents, project files, etc) and, as the name suggests, holds them hostage until the victim pays to have them restored. Particularly nefarious ransomware may even encrypt your entire device, rendering it utterly useless until the cyber criminal’s demands are met. It’s important to remember that even if the ransom is paid, there is no guarantee that the hacker will restore your files or device.
6. Your Device is Making Strange Noises
By now you’re probably already familiar with that horrible whirring noise that happens when your machine is “thinking” too hard (ie. when processing something that requires a high amount of memory). However, this sound usually stops whenever the activity causing it is no longer in progress. If your computer is making this sound even when you’re not doing anything memory intensive, then malware may be operating in the background. In addition, even if the malware is running unbeknownst to you, your device will most likely alert you with some sort of audio signal. So if you’re regularly noticing chimes, bells and other alert sounds coming from your device (seemingly without cause), this could point towards a virus or malware infection.
7. Spam is Being Sent from Your Email and/or Social Media Accounts
Have any of your email contacts mentioned receiving a strange message from your account? If so, check your sent folder immediately. If you come across any unfamiliar emails that you definitely didn’t create, then you’ve most likely contracted a computer virus. Your best course of action is to immediately sign out any device logged into your email account, lest they also become infected. Next, change your password to something completely new, ideally with a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. Avoid using the same password for multiple accounts. Setting up two-step authentication (also known as multi-factor authentication) will also reduce the chances of unauthorised persons accessing your account. It’s not just your email that malware may infiltrate either, your social media accounts are also at risk. Some malware will wreak havoc on your social media accounts (Facebook is the most popular target) by generating fake posts or direct messages with dubious links. Unfortunately, this malware infection can spread like wildfire, as any of your contacts who are tricked into clicking on the fake link will also become infected.
8. Your Antivirus Software Isn’t Working
Generally, a good antivirus software should be able to protect your device against most viruses. Even so, some malware is sophisticated enough to defend itself. If you find that your current antivirus software isn’t updating and you’re unable to download and install a new one, then this may be a sign that a virus is working to protect itself. Try closing and reopening the software, or restarting your device. If neither of these solves the problem then it’s time to call in the professionals.
I’m Infected…What Should I Do?
Any device exhibiting these warning signs should be looked at straight away. The longer you leave malware unchecked, the more damage it can do. Once your device is free from any malicious programs you should take steps to protect yourself against any future attacks. Maintaining an up-to-date antivirus software and using a virtual private network (VPN) when connecting to the internet can be two of the simplest (yet effective) ways to protect your device, accounts and data.