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Differences Between a Virus, Ransomware, and Malware

Differences Between a Virus, Ransomware, and Malware

Cybersecurity can be a confusing field of study. For those who are not familiar with its basic concepts, the similarity of certain terms can create a lot of confusion. You have probably heard words like “virus,” “malware,” and “ransomware” used interchangeably…as if they all mean the same thing. Well, we’re here to tell you: They don’t! Let’s demystify this subject and break it down for everyone.

What Is Malware?

Malware is a general term for all malicious software and is an abbreviation of the same term. When used properly, this word refers to all software that is intended to harm or exploit. As such, this is probably the correct term to use when having a general discussion on cybersecurity.

Malware includes a number of different categories, of which viruses and ransomware are only two. Some of the others include rootkits, which embed themselves deep in your computer, where even the operating system will have a hard time detecting them. Spyware is another common type of malware, and it is (of course) primarily intended for gathering information. Botnets and worm-type viruses also fall under this heading.

In some cases, malware is not even intended to steal data or transfer wealth. Sometimes, they are just using the resources of your PC without your knowledge. So, if you’ve ever had a computer that ran slow for no discernible reason, it could have been infected with some kind of malware. Things like cryptocurrency mining, password crackers, email spamming, and the performance of DDOS attacks require a lot of RAM to do their thing. By co-opting your machine, they are making you an unwitting accomplice to their crimes.

What Is A Virus?

Viruses are a specific kind of malware, and they are appropriately named. Like an actual virus, they are made to spread from one machine to another without any manual input from the attacker. As such, they are usually used for attacks against large multi-user computer systems.

Viruses are meant to be installed without the knowledge or consent of the user and do not usually require social engineering methods to be effective. All that is required is that you come into contact with an already-infected system. Once that happens, the virus installs itself and begins to do its dirty work. This could include data theft, identity theft, unauthorized resource usage, monetary theft, and/or the corruption and loss of data.

The worst viruses are the ones that are made to be self-replicating. By continually increasing their numbers (again, like a real virus), they can continue to cause exponentially worse damage until the whole system collapses. These types of viruses are generally called “worms.” For example, we might look at the “Red Worm” virus, which caused a lot of trouble back in 2001. In fact, the makers of this one even managed to DDOS the White House and compromise many high-level government systems.

What Is Ransomware?

Ransomware is a very specific type of malware, and it has become more popular in recent years. The basic mechanism is very simple: The ransomware locks you out of your computer and then charges you a ransom in order to regain access. Some companies have been extorted for huge sums of money by malware like this.

Ransomware works by using a piece of technology that was originally intended to protect computer users: Encryption. Encryption works by jumbling up the data at a basic level, rendering it unreadable and unusable. It can only be decoded using an encryption key, and even that key cannot do it without a password. Thus, encryption has proven to be one of the most effective computer security measures.

Ransomware, on the other hand, uses encryption to scramble your entire hard drive with a password that only the attacker will know. The attacker can then demand money or other forms of payment. In most cases, those who pay the ransom do not recover their data or their access. This kind of attack often works because companies and organizations do not want the public to know that they were hacked. It represents a loss of trust, and they don’t want that. Therefore, they are often willing to pay a ransom to make the problem go away.

General Tips For Avoiding These Things

It would be possible to write many pages on this subject, but we want to give you a good general overview. The good news is that most malware/hacking attempts can be defeated with basic precautions. Most people do not take even the most basic security precautions, and hackers know that. As such, their attacks are usually intended to ensnare the unwary.

To avoid malware, follow these basic safety tips:

  • Never install a program from an unverified publisher
  • Never give anyone your passwords for any reason
  • Never click links or buttons from unverified emails
  • Use browser add-ons that warn you of suspicious pages
  • Use an ad blocker to that hackers can’t use legitimate ads as a backdoor
  • Use a VPN or proxy service to hide your IP address
  • Consider the use of high-security managed IT support services
  • Only use antivirus software that has a good reputation
  • Use up-to-date firewalls to prevent connections to known malicious sites
  • Do all of your software updates manually


Of course, you could spend a lifetime learning about the various aspects of computer security, and some people have done just that. However, our purpose here is to give you a solid footing in the terms and concepts that you need. Knowledge is power9, and this power can be used both offensively and defensively. IT support and services should also be used to the fullest extent.

By understanding any threat, you give yourself a better chance of recognizing and avoiding the danger. If we have helped you to do that, we hope that you will show your appreciation by filling out the contact form.