What is malware and why should I care?

7 min read
Paul Teitelman

You’ve probably heard stories of malicious software programs (“malware”) bringing down major corporations and holding sensitive information hostage in recent years. This includes the 2017 attacks on Lakeridge Health in Oshawa (near Toronto), and a major Canadian company that paid hackers $425,000 in Bitcoin to regain control of their website. But what is malware really — and are you at risk?

It’s not just large corporations that need to be concerned with malware and malicious hackers. A 2016 report found that over 50 percent of all cyberattacks targeted small businesses.

Small and mid-sized businesses often lack the resources to properly safeguard their systems from cyberattacks. Cybersecurity can be a major investment, and some entrepreneurs would rather take the risk and leave their systems unprotected.

Let’s take a closer look at the problem, answer the question ‘what is malware’ and learn what your business can do to defend itself.

3 things you can do now to head off malware

Malware is a fact of life. But you can minimise your risk with these security tips.

  1. Secure your perimeter.

  2. Be vigilant online.

  3. Back up your website and all your data.

Before we dive into our list of best practices, let’s talk about what’s at stake.

What Is malware?

Malware stands for malicious software, which encompasses a wide range of potential threats to your business website, including:

The main goal of these attacks is usually to earn money by stealing data that can be sold on the darknet, including your customers’ personal info and payment details. But hackers can also bring your system offline or damage both software and hardware — including your website, social media accounts, databases, apps and just about any other kind of digital property.

Hackers could ask for money in exchange for bringing your system back online, removing the virus or returning sensitive information.

These threats can be launched in many different ways. You might receive a suspicious email with a link to a website masquerading as a familiar company or one of your service providers. If you click on the link, you might accidentally give a virus permission to infect your computer.

You might unknowingly download a malicious program when browsing the web or by clicking on a strange ad. You can also get a virus or malware by plugging an infected hard drive or USB drive into your computer.

What are the potential risks to my business?

There are many ways malware can negatively affect your business. We’ll talk about each of these situations and how to spot the warning signs.

Your website could go down

Malware can take your company’s website offline, bringing your business to a standstill. This means new users won’t be able to find your website at all. For an eCommerce website, malware can essentially hold your company hostage because all your transactions happen online.

You might notice strange icons or pop-up windows on your website or while you’re browsing the internet. Your site could take longer to load or respond. Certain programs or websites might open automatically, forcing you to manually close them.

This will also interrupt any PPC or pay-per-click campaigns you might be running online, which means you’ll be wasting your money on a campaign that’s sending traffic to a site that can’t be accessed.

This can also lower your website’s search rankings, as Google won’t feature websites that are offline. If you notice a change to your search rankings. If you’re not sure if you’ve been hacked, you might require an SEO consulting analysis.

Your internal database might be hacked

As a business owner, it’s your job to protect valuable information you hold about your clients and customers. If you’re selling anything to the public, that means you handle people’s addresses, payment information — maybe even their social security numbers or credit scores.

Your hard drive might fail to come online or you'll find you can’t access the data inside. Another possible warning sign? You’re constantly running out of storage space despite making more room on the device.

The same is also true of clients. Your clients entrust you with some of their most valuable information, perhaps including details on new products. Then, of course, there’s all the private internal data that your company has collected over the years.

What Is Malware Kick Me
No digital security? Your company could be a bright red target for hackers.
Photo: bschmove Flickr via Compfight cc

If any of the information you control is stolen or leaked to the public, you will lose business by losing the trust of your customers. Your business will also have a more difficult time attracting new customers because your company’s reputation will be tarnished.

Depending on the size and nature of your company, these kinds of incidents can also lead to lawsuits and government inquiries into what went wrong, which means a lot of negative press and possibly some costly legal fees for your business.

Device or hardware failure

Certain forms of malware can also damage physical devices like mobile phones, tablets, computers, laptops and hard drives. If one of these programs makes its way onto your device, the entire system could be corrupted. This could lead to unpleasant consequences such as:

  • Your website going offline.
  • Being unable to communicate with your consumers.
  • The loss of valuable data and information.

Clearly, malware is a concern for all businesses, large and small.

How can I protect myself?

As a business owner, you have plenty of options when it comes to protecting your business and its assets from malware. It usually means paying for a malware website scanner and being vigilant when surfing the internet, collecting data and interacting with other devices.

1. Secure your perimeter

The first line of defence is to run updates of your Mac or Windows operating system software to ensure you have the most recent security updates.

Activate or update any security software that came pre-installed on your devices. When you receive notification of new updates, act promptly, as updates often close newly discovered security gaps. Meanwhile, a website scanner can regularly scan and remove malware, while a web application firewall (WAF) can screen out suspicious traffic.

2. Be vigilant online

You and your employees need to be aware of the risks of browsing the internet. Instruct your employees not to open strange emails, attachments, ads or anything else that looks suspicious. Educating yourself, your employees and your suppliers to the risks could save you time and frustration down the road.

3. Back up your website and all your data

What Is Malware Hard Drive
Head hackers off by making regular backup copies of your website and data.
Photo: Patrick Lindenberg on Unsplash

It’s important to have a backup in case a hacker holds your data for ransom. You can copy your website and all of its data using a service like Website Backup from GoDaddy or one provided by your web host.

What is malware explained

In order to protect your business, you and your employees should be aware of how to recognize the telltale signs of malware. Everyone needs to be vigilant when bringing new devices into the business, clicking email attachments or just surfing the web. You should also protect your company’s equipment with a reliable security plan. Follow these tips to get started on the path to safety.