Malicious software – or “malware” for short – is a broad class of software built with malicious intent.

“You may have heard of malware being referred to as a ‘computer bug’ or ‘virus’ because most malware is designed to spread like a contagious illness, infecting other computers it comes into contact with,” said Michael Benardo, manager of the FDIC’s Cyber Fraud and Financial Crimes Section.

“And if you don’t protect your computer, it could become infected by malware that steals your personal financial information, spies on you by capturing your keystrokes, or even destroys data.”

Law enforcement agencies and security experts have seen an increase in malware known as “ransomware,” which restricts someone’s access to a computer or a smartphone – literally holding the device hostage – until a ransom is paid.

The most common way malware spreads is when someone clicks on an email attachment, anything from a document to a photo, video or audio file.  Criminals also might try to get you to download malware by including a link in the wording of an email or in a social media post that directs you somewhere else, often to an infected file or page on the Internet.

The link might be part of a story that sounds very provocative, such as one with a headline that says, “How to Get Rich” or “You Have to See This!”

Malware also can spread across a network of linked computers, be downloaded from an infected website, or be passed around on a contaminated thumb drive or flash drive.

Here are tips to keep malware off your computer.

1. Don’t immediately open email attachments or click on links in unsolicited or suspicious-looking emails. “Even if the attachment is from someone you know, consider if you really need to open the attachment, especially if the email looks suspicious,” said Benardo.

2. Install good anti-virus software that periodically runs to search for and remove malware.

3. Be diligent about using spam (junk mail) filters provided by your email provider.

4. Don’t visit untrusted websites and don’t believe everything you read. If something sounds too good to be true, it’s probably fraudulent or harmful.

5. Be careful if anyone gives you a disk or thumb drive to insert in your computer.  It could have hidden malware on it.  Don’t access a disk or thumb drive without first scanning it with your security software. If you are still unsure, don’t take a chance.

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