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Malware, Virus, Ransomware... What's the difference?

Virus. Malware. Ransomware. All scary words when it comes to computing. What are they? What’s the difference between them? How do I protect myself? This post will help you understand what they are and how you can keep your device and data safe.

It is important to remember that with the increasing use of mobile devices, these are also susceptible to attack, too.

What’s the difference?

There can be some confusion, as the terms for used to describe malware are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are some useful distinctions that can be made.


Malware is the catch-all term for any software designed to cause harm, hack into, or disrupt a device. A contraction of ‘Malicious-Software’, it includes viruses and ransomware, as well as spyware, bots, rootkits, and worms.

Malware can be used to compromise your device in many ways, for example, logging your keystrokes, slowing down your device, or steal or delete data.

Different malware spread via different methods, most common are files attached to emails, visiting infected websites, or sometimes downloaded under the guise of "free" utility software. Even reputable websites can be used as a way of installing malware through third-party adverts.

Malware can often infect a machine without the user becoming aware. It is thought that about 1/3 of all computers are infected at any one time. Even if you do not store important files on your device, you can be affected in other ways. Some malware will try to access your emails and spread to your contacts. Others may record your keystrokes and send your login details, and banking information, to criminals to use or sell.


A virus is a particular type of malware designed to ‘infect’ a device undetected and spread to other devices. Once they have infected a device, they can delete files, send emails (often to spread themselves), as well as corrupt your hard drive.

Like malware in general, viruses can become installed on your machine through a variety of different methods, even if you think you are being safe. Some of the most common vectors of infection include torrenting files (aka filesharing or peer-to-peer downloads), opening an infected email, and downloading free software, such as browser toolbars or games.

Viruses are usually designed to cause disruption to the user by affecting the performance of a device, crashing it, or even stopping it working altogether; as well as deleting files. Like a biological virus, they will try to spread from device to device, in this case, they may try to access your email and send spam to your contacts in order to infect their devices.


Ransomware is a very specific type of malware. Ransomware is designed to infect a device without detection and then lock the user out, holding the users' data to ransom, until the user pays a fee. The fee is often asked for in Bitcoin, as this is untraceable. In some cases, even if the ransom is paid, you may not get access to your files again.

Ransomware is most commonly downloaded via spam emails that trick the user into downloading a file, or via a file sharing, by pretending to be something the user searched for.

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How do I protect myself?

There is a difference between using Apple devices and non-Apple devices when it comes to protecting yourself against malware. Apple devices have a variety of security features in place to protect you. Apple is able to do this more effectively than most device makers as they design and build the hardware and software of all their devices, meaning the operating systems (iOS and macOS) are more integrated with the hardware. By comparison, Windows and Android operating systems are more open by design. This means they can run on a huge variety of software and hardware combinations, but devices are more prone to malware and are easier to attack.

If you are using a Windows PC, it is very important to have trustworthy anti-virus software installed. There are some good free applications which will offer basic protection for free, plus additional features in a paid-for version. Always make sure you install the application directly from the publisher’s website, as some malware can be disguised as anti-virus software to catch you out.

While it is true that Apple devices are more secure than Windows devices, they are not immune to viruses. Plus, with the increase in the usage of Apple devices, especially in business, malware programmers will be adapting their code to try and infect Apple devices. Apple themselves have put in place security features to try to protect you, including Filevault and Gatekeeper. macOS also asks for your password before installing any application, this helps to stop malware designed to install itself without a users knowledge, as any installation should trigger a system dialogue box, asking for your password to enable the installation.

The most common source of malware on Mac, in our experience, are pop-ups for software claiming to clean-up, or speed-up, your Mac. In light of this, the best form of protection is to be vigilant, and not to download any software presented in a browser pop-up, or that you have not expressly searched for. Often these pop-ups will try to entice you into downloading the application by showing a ‘scan’ of your computer with errors, or by displaying your IP address and claiming this makes your device unsafe. If you are concerned about your machine’s performance, search for an application to help, and read reviews from more than one source.

Regardless of which operating system you are using you can install an ‘Ad Blocker’. These are usually an add-on for your internet browser (Safari, Firefox, Google Chrome) which stop adverts displaying on webpages. These will often stop the malicious adverts, as well as popups that make some websites difficult to read. Apple has certified a number of these as compatible with its' built-in browser, Safari, on both iOS and macOS. Browser extensions such as these should only be installed from a trusted source, such as the Mac or iOS App Store.

You can also use a VPN to browse the internet (see our previous article on VPN's here). A VPN allows you to surf the web anonymously. Websites see the IP address, as well as other information, from the device making the connection to it. A VPN works by connecting you to the world wide web via another device. This means that websites are not able to access information about your device. As always, be careful with free offerings. Some VPNs are more secure than others and offer more features, such as malware blockers. VPNs do not stop you downloading files onto your machine, but they can stop you being identified.

What do I do if I get attacked?

Unfortunately, once you notice an attack, it is often already too late. Incremental backups may help the most in this scenario, however, malware can lie dormant for months before making itself known, so it may be included in your backup. Most malware can be removed from a device by wiping it and starting with a fresh install of the operating system, however, this will also wipe your data. If you do not have a safe and uninfected backup of your data, this will be lost. Some malware may affect the firmware of your device. Firmware effectively tells the hardware how it works. If your firmware is affected, it may be very difficult to get your machine working properly again. This would require a specialist to inspect your device.

If you would like to ask any questions please get in touch via email, telephone, or Twitter and we would be happy to offer more advice.

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