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Understanding Cyber Threats – A Short Guide to Malware

When businesses think of cyber threats, malware is the danger that most often comes to mind. From worms that replicate and spread laterally across networks, to ransomware that encrypts and corrupts vital files, malware has the potential to inflict widespread harm to poorly protected IT systems.

So what is the definition of malware?

Malware combines the words ‘malicious’ and ‘software’ to create a portmanteau term that denotes any form of harmful software programme. Microsoft defines malware as:

 

“a catch-all term to refer to any software designed to cause damage to a single computer, server, or computer network.”

 PAQ IT – IT Management, Cyber security and solutions for Galway, Limerick and Cork Businesses

 

Here at PAQ IT, we help our clients conquer their greatest data security challenges, with tailored security solutions that combine to form a robust cyber security framework. By incorporating security best practices, policies and leading technical measures, we help SMEs across Ireland defend their digital systems against today’s hostile cyber threat landscape.

Malware is perhaps the archetypal cyber threat, and is often the online risk businesses express most concern about. Despite these concerns, businesses often misunderstand malware, with confusion arising around the terminology, and a lack of awareness around some of the pathways it takes onto corporate IT systems.

To help provide clarity, here’s our short guide to malware, including some actionable steps you can take to protect your Limerick, Galway or Cork business from this harmful digital menace.

 

How Does Malware Find its Way into IT Systems?

To effectively counter malware, it’s vital to understand some of its most common methods of transmission. Here are some of the vectors hackers use to inject malware onto IT systems:

  • Attackers embed harmful programmes in phishing emails, disguised as attachments that appear innocuous on the surface. The attackers will often pose as a trusted colleague sharing vital documents.
  • Malicious Websites. Users may contract malware by simply visiting a malware-infested website. Vulnerabilities in the user’s browser or plugins may be exploited by ‘drive-by-downloads,’ which automatically download and execute malware onto the user’s device without their knowledge.
  • Malvertising, short for ‘malicious advertising,’ is a method of delivering malware through ads on legitimate websites. Clicking on such ads initiates the execution of malicious code, which either attempts to download and install malware by exploiting browser vulnerabilities or redirects the user to a malicious website.
  • External Devices. External devices, if not properly screened, can introduce malware to IT systems when connected to PCs and other devices. Flash drives, smartphones, external hard drives, and even printers and scanners can pose a threat.
  • Software Vulnerabilities. Hackers often leverage software and operating system vulnerabilities as entry points for malware infiltration. Unpatched or outdated software is particularly vulnerable, with ‘exploit kits’ automating the process, making it easy for attackers to launch devastating attacks through weaknesses in popular applications.
  • Supply Chain Attacks. Attackers insert malware into vulnerabilities within the software supply chain, compromising legitimate software products or updates. Users unknowingly install and execute the corrupted software, inadvertently releasing the malware payload onto their systems. Supply chain attacks are a rapidly growing vector of malware transmission, and unfortunately, too few businesses have active protections against them.

 

Types of Malware

Cybercriminals are cunning, and are always developing new, innovative exploit capabilities to take advantage of the vulnerabilities they’re presented with. As a result, malware comes in a wide range of formats, with each type created for a specific task and possessing unique characteristics. Here are some of the most common forms of malware that you should be mindful of:

 

Ransomware

Ransomware is the most notorious form of malware, and is arguably the most feared cyber threat in circulation. Ransomware programmes typically encrypt documents or lock users out of their devices and operating systems, promising to restore access once a ransom is paid. However, paying the hackers their desired reward offers no guarantee of system or file restoration and may even result in subsequent attacks. The incidence of ransomware has increased markedly in recent years. Therefore, it’s vital for your business to take a proactive stance against this damaging threat, which has the potential to inflict severe financial and reputational damage.

 

Trojans

Trojans encompass a wide range of pernicious programmes that come disguised as legitimate applications. Often delivered through phishing emails, trojans come with persuasive messages attached, encouraging the user to download and execute the application onto their device. Once activated, trojans can encrypt data, snoop on user activity, crash devices, exfiltrate sensitive data, and even orchestrate devastating DDoS attacks.

 

Spyware

Upon being downloaded, spyware programmes lurk quietly in the background conducting hostile espionage, often capturing personal data, browsing habits and keyboard entries for use in future cyberattacks. Spyware is designed to evade detection, meaning users are often oblivious to its presence until the hacker has already captured the information they were looking for.

 

Viruses

A computer virus refers to a form of malware that latches onto a legitimate file or program, using it as a transmission vector, similar to how a biological virus spreads between its hosts. Viruses are often delivered via email attachments, removable media and downloaded files, and only activate when a user executes the host programme. Once initiated, viruses can delete or modify files, exfiltrate sensitive information and perform other harmful functions.

 

Worms

Unlike viruses, worms are standalone malware applications, that can self-replicate and propagate across networks without relying on host applications or user interactions. Instead, worms exploit software and operating system vulnerabilities, and use network connections to copy themselves between devices.

 

Adware

Short for advertising-supported software, adware is a form of software that presents users with uninvited, often intrusive advertisements. While adware is more often considered an irritant than a form of malware, it can be used as part of a larger malicious scheme, whereby the adware directs users to malicious websites that are being used to conduct phishing scams, or for the delivery of more harmful forms of malware. Some forms of adware also contain tracking capabilities, enabling hackers to monitor online activity and build a detailed user profile.

 

How to Protect Your Business Against the Malware Threat

Safeguarding your business against malware requires a dynamic strategy that applies complimentary, overlapping protections to seal up vulnerabilities across your devices, servers, networks, applications and online services. User education also has a vital role to play in preventing the inadvertent introduction of malware through email attachments and rogue websites.

Work with your IT partner to develop a robust and comprehensive cyber security strategy that effectively mitigates against the malware threat. In the meantime, here are some tips you can apply to keep your IT malware-free.

 

  1. Keep software and operating systems up-to date. Install security patches promptly to seal vulnerabilities against malicious exploitation.
  2. Create an application whitelist. Create a whitelist of approved applications and prohibit the download of any programmes not on this list to minimise risk. Enforce this list using tightly controlled user permissions and device management.
  3. Install and run anti-malware software across all devices. These systems can detect the threat signatures of malware and block it before it’s able to execute within your network.
  4. Use a firewall. Use firewalls both at your network perimeter and at device level, and configure network traffic rules to prevent users accessing untrusted sites and online services that aren’t relevant to work tasks.
  5. Use Sandboxing. Determine the security status of software by testing it first in an isolated environment known as a ‘sandbox.’ This contains any potentially malicious code that might be attached to the application, ensuring it’s unable to pose a threat to your systems and data.
  6. Cyber Security Training. Educate your employees on the harm malware can cause, and the infection pathways attackers use to infect corporate IT systems. Encourage vigilance when encountering unverified links, require that software only be downloaded from trusted, security-vetted sources, and stress the importance of never opening email attachments, unless they originate from a fully-authenticated, known and trusted sender.

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