Malware attacks pose a significant risk to both individuals and businesses, infiltrating computer systems, compromising sensitive data and disrupting operations, leading to financial and data loss — and even extortion.
Robust malware prevention measures are critically important for protecting personal information, financial records, and even cherished memories. The stakes are even higher for businesses, government and other organizations, as successful attacks can be devastating to operations and sensitive data. Here are 15 important controls and best practices for preventing malware.
If you’ve been hit by malware and are looking for help, see How to Remove Malware: Removal Steps for Windows & Mac.
Table of Contents
1. Exercise Caution with Emails
The first two items on this list could be lumped together with a single warning: Don’t click. About 90% of cyber attacks begin with a phishing email, text or malicious link, so training users not to click on anything they’re not sure about could have the highest return on investment (ROI) of any prevention technique — if those training efforts are successful and reinforced. One bit of good news: Even widely used email services like Gmail have gotten much better at filtering out spam and malicious email, and businesses have a range of email security tools that can help.
- Be Alert to Phishing: Develop a sharp eye for phishing emails. Scrutinize for signs like misspellings, generic greetings, and suspicious attachments or links. Don’t click on anything you’re unsure of.
- Hover for Safety: Hover your mouse over links to preview URLs before clicking. This simple action helps identify genuine links from potential threats. And check who the email is from and other contextual clues to be doubly certain. Paranoia is a very good thing with web security in general.
2. Be Careful with Downloads
Downloads are one of the surest ways to introduce malware into your system. As with phishing emails, the best defense is a well-trained, alert user.
- Look for Reliable Sources: Download software only from reputable sources and official websites. Avoid third-party platforms that might disguise malware as legitimate software. Unfortunately even Google ads can be malicious, so the safest approach is always download from the most direct source possible, like a software company’s website or an open source project page.
- Watch File Extensions: Exercise caution with file extensions; avoid files with suspicious extensions like .exe or .bat, especially from unfamiliar sources. In the wrong hands, even an Office doc can be dangerous, so always know the source of any download. And heed browser and search result warnings — if there’s a warning that something is unsafe, exercise extreme caution.
3. Use Caution with Ads and Websites
Website pop-ups and online advertising can be vectors for malware, phishing attempts, and other harmful actions. It is important to exercise caution while engaging with them — and with unknown websites in general — to keep from becoming a victim of fraud or malware.
- Utilize Ad Blockers: Shield yourself from potentially malicious ads by using ad-blocking software. This reduces exposure to deceptive ads designed to deliver malware.
- Avoid Clickbait: Exercise skepticism toward sensationalized content. Avoid clickbait; these enticing traps can sometimes hide malware.
- Share Info Selectively: Be careful about what websites you visit, and be even more careful about which websites you share personal or financial information with.
4. Use Antivirus Software
Antivirus software and EDR tools are critically important controls for consumers and businesses, respectively. Windows and Mac devices come with pretty good built-in antivirus software; activate it if you’re not using a paid solution from another security company.
- Initiate Regular Scans: Antivirus and endpoint security tools should be set to routinely scan your system with full and quick scans. These scans can detect and eliminate hidden malware.
- Activate Real-Time Protection: Ensure real-time protection is active, continuously monitoring your system and blocking any malware intrusion attempts instantly.
5. Enable Firewall Protection
Your firewall, working as the primary filter, protects your network from both inbound and outgoing threats. Mac and Windows have their own built-in firewalls, and home routers and antivirus subscriptions frequently include them also.
- Control Inbound and Outbound Traffic: Configuring firewall rules to manage both incoming and outgoing traffic is an important defense against cyber threats, preventing unauthorized access and malicious software from stealing data. Secure practices like robust admin passwords and advanced encryption ensure control over traffic, safeguarding personal information and increasing the odds of a secure online experience.
6. Secure Your Network
Network security is a difficult thing for businesses — we offer a comprehensive guide to get you started there. Fortunately it’s a little bit easier for home users. Proper home router practices, such as enabling encryption settings and providing strong default admin passwords, will dramatically improve network security. Your router may also have a built-in firewall; activate it if you do.
- Strengthen Router Security: Enhance your router’s security by changing default login credentials. Regularly update router firmware to patch vulnerabilities and close potential avenues of attack.
- Isolate Guest Devices: Establish a separate guest network to isolate devices, protecting your main network from potential threats originating from guest devices.
7. Keep Software Updated
Patch management is the practice of regularly updating your software. Software updates, like Microsoft’s monthly Patch Tuesday, often contain important security fixes, so install all updates promptly. Updates come in many forms, such as drivers, application and operating system updates, so stay alert for notifications and update when you get them and routinely check to make sure you have the most recent software installed on your devices.
- Stay Updated: Stay proactive in safeguarding your system by consistently checking for system and software updates through effective patch management in your security routine.
- Automate Updates: Automate updates where possible to receive crucial security patches without manual intervention.
8. Create Strong, Unique Passwords
Creating strong, one-of-a-kind passwords acts as a strong defense to keep your accounts safe. Some password managers offer free versions if you need help.
- Craft Complex Passwords: Generate passwords with a mix of uppercase, lowercase, numbers, and special characters. This creates a robust shield against brute force attacks. Another common practice is stringing together four random words.
- Rotate for Security: Enhance security by changing passwords regularly, particularly for sensitive accounts, and don’t reuse passwords across accounts. Frequent rotation denies hackers a static entry point. Watch for breach notifications from companies you have accounts with so you’ll know whatever other defensive moves you need to make too.
9. Implement Multi-factor Authentication (MFA)
Adding Multi-factor authentication (MFA) goes beyond passwords, using additional verification measures like a text message or authenticator app to safeguard your accounts.
- Layered Authentication: Implementing 2FA or MFA wherever you can strengthens your defenses by integrating varied methods such as SMS codes, authentication applications, hardware tokens, biometric authentication and passkeys, adding extra barriers against illegal access.
10. Regularly Back Up Your Data
Regular encrypted backups can help keep important data safe from data loss or ransomware. Ideally, that backup should be kept offline and “immutable” to prevent ransomware attackers from accessing it, a level of protection that’s difficult to obtain.
- Scheduled Backups: Have a regular, fixed schedule for backing up your data. This ensures your critical files are up-to-date, minimizing potential loss in case of a cyber attack.
- Encrypt Data: If using cloud backup services, enable data encryption during transit and storage. This added layer of security increases your data’s confidentiality.
11. Secure Mobile Devices
Your mobile phone is not to be overlooked as a source of security vulnerabilities, and many of these best practices apply to our mobile devices too. Most important is antivirus software: Free versions with restricted features offer little for mobile phones, so if you care about the information on your phone, invest in a paid antivirus solution for your device. This is mainly for Android devices; the most security conscious iPhone users should consider lockdown mode. Businesses have more options than consumers here, including mobile device management (MDM), access control and access management.
- Restrict App Permissions: Take control of your mobile device’s security by reviewing and limiting app permissions, denying unnecessary access and removing unused apps.
- Source from Official App Stores: Download apps exclusively from official app stores. Android users should disable installations from unknown sources, ensuring app authenticity. These aren’t perfect solutions, however, so source from known app developers wherever possible and beware look-alikes or unofficial channels.
12. Regularly Monitor Accounts
Account monitoring is a critical practice. If you ever get hacked and get offered free identity monitoring by the company that failed to protect your data, take it and pay attention to any warnings it sends you. You should keep your eye on all of your accounts anyway, and use multi-factor authentication wherever possible. Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions might be something for businesses to consider.
- Vigilant Financial Oversight: Safeguard your finances by regularly reviewing bank and credit card statements. Promptly report any unauthorized transactions, thwarting potential financial losses.
- Activate Account Alerts: Harness the power of account alerts; set up notifications for unusual activities. Many financial institutions offer alerts for transactions exceeding specific thresholds, keeping you informed and secure.
13. Disable Unnecessary Processes
Disabling or uninstalling unnecessary processes and services can limit attack paths such as those hackers might use in Living off the Land (LOTL) attacks. Businesses may be able to accomplish more here, but there are things home users can do too, like limiting what loads on startup or even disabling some ports in the case of more advanced users, steps that can help device performance too.
- Minimize Attack Paths: Disabling unused services, ports, and protocols strengthens defenses and creates a more resilient digital space capable of withstanding cyber threats.
- Delete Unused Apps: This is something everyone can do — if you don’t use it and don’t need it, delete it. This will help improve your data privacy too.
- Use a Non-admin Account for Daily Tasks: You need an admin account to update your operating system, but you don’t need that level of access every day. Consider surfing the web under a user or guest account to limit potential damage from hackers and malware. It’s another way to shut down unnecessary processes — some of the most dangerous ones, in fact.
14. Conduct Regular Security Audits
This one may apply more to businesses, although users should regular consider what’s on their devices and whether they’re up to date with the latest fixes. Regular security audits help maintain a strong cyber security posture for organizations. They aid in identifying flaws, ensuring regulatory compliance and mitigating risks, improving incident response, and fostering customer and partner confidence. Vulnerability assessments and vulnerability scans help in identifying vulnerabilities, allowing for early repair and decreasing a cyber attacker’s window of opportunity.
- Proactive Vulnerability Scanning: Actively seek out system weaknesses using reputable vulnerability scanning tools and prioritize fixes based on risk.
15. Stay Informed and Educate Others
Whether consumer or business, you want to stay on top of vulnerabilities and best practices, and you want your employees to do the same. It is critical to provide staff with a thorough grasp of cybersecurity risks in order to strengthen the company’s cyber defenses. Regular training, seminars, quizzes and even an occasional test email not only check your workforce’s ability to detect suspicious cyber occurrences, but also foster a watchful business culture. Your staff will become proactive guardians, actively contributing to a robust and safe digital environment, if you engage in continual learning and awareness.
- Stay Updated: Remain informed about the latest cybersecurity threats. Knowledge is your best defense; educate yourself and others about new scams and phishing techniques.
- Encourage Reporting: Foster a culture of security by urging others to report suspicious emails or links. Reporting helps in early detection and prevention of potential threats.
Bottom Line: Malware Prevention Requires Vigilance
Staying on top of cybersecurity risks requires an investment of time and at least a modest amount of money, but the alternative could be a whole lot of work cleaning up major problems, and possible financial and data loss too.
Implementing strong malware prevention measures is not just a personal responsibility but also a strategic imperative for businesses. These practices ensure the safety of personal information, financial assets, and critically important data. For businesses, these practices directly impact the bottom line, as malware attacks can disrupt operations, lead to costly downtime, and damage customer trust.
Robust malware prevention measures can also be an important legal and regulatory compliance defense, showing you made a good-faith effort even in cases where a cyber attack got past your defenses. With the average cyber attack costing businesses around $4 million these days, a strong cybersecurity posture pays for itself rather quickly.
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