Technology 4 min read

Learn the Differences Between Spyware, Viruses, and Scareware

Spyware, ransomware, malware, viruses -- are they all the same thing? Not quite. The key differences lie in their behaviors and how they spread throughout your system. All of these can severely damage your systems, so it pays to be in the know.

Computer viruses are everywhere these days, so it's important to stay ahead of the newest threats. | Image By siiixth | Shutterstock

Computer viruses are everywhere these days, so it's important to stay ahead of the newest threats. | Image By siiixth | Shutterstock

In an online world inundated with malware, it’s important to know the differences between spyware, viruses, and scareware.

Though many who frequent Edgy Labs are technically inclined, sometimes we all need a cheat sheet for certain things.

The Internet can sometimes be a bit of a Wild West. You need to know how to protect yourself from malware, viruses, and the like. Knowing the difference between all of these terms is a solid first step.

Here, we’ll highlight the key differences between scareware, viruses, and spyware here for you.

Spyware, as its name suggests, spies on your computer habits and actions. | Lynda.com

Spyware: Identified by Behavior

There are many types of spyware and, often times, this category overlaps with malware. Malware, of course, is shorthand for “malicious software”.

Most “spyware” types get their names from the functions they perform or how the programs behave. Spyware usually watches what you do to attain personal information such as passwords.

They can spy through your computer’s webcam, listen through microphones, and more. But many antivirus programs have protections against spyware.

Spyware can be anything from the following list:

  • Rootkits — these tap into your PC’s operating system and hide malicious programs in the components. They can also hide in Registries.
  • Adware — this forces unwanted pop-ups like advertisements that can be personally targeted, having used stolen information.
  • Dropper programs — smaller programs that exist to aid bigger malware. They can funnel more malware onto your PC while remaining fairly unnoticed.
  • Bots — you might recall this from our coverage of the WannaCry attacks. Bots can help someone remotely take over your device, then use your power to attack another system.

This also includes ransomware — programs that may hold your data “hostage”, often demanding a monetary ransom for surrender.

Here you have the usual virus suspects including rootkits and trojans. | Kaspersky Lab

Viruses: Identified by Replication

In contrast to spyware and ransomware, you can identify viruses by the way they spread.

Their essential function differs from spyware in that viruses work differently, but most viruses still gather information for nefarious means.

The two main types of computer virus include worms and Trojans.

As you might suspect, Trojans reference the classic epic tale of the Trojan horse.

Trojan viruses work the same way as the Greeks did in tricking the Trojans. They smuggle in malicious code to eventually do something harmful like steal personal data or drain bank accounts.

Worms self-replicate, copying themselves to use tons of bandwidth or crash systems.

One of the most notable recent cases of a newsworthy virus was the orangeworm Kwampir.

Scareware attempts to do exactly what its name says: scare you. | Firefly

Scareware: Ineffective or Fake/Harmful “Antivirus”

This last section is aimed at exploiting people’s fears of being hacked.

Scareware is not inherently bad itself, but it can provoke people to spend unnecessary money on ultimately useless “antivirus” programs.

Some do include harmful aspects, as well, including something as simple as handing over your payment information to a potentially malicious company.

Doing thorough research about programs before downloading and/or paying for them is always a good practice — especially when it comes to antivirus programs.

In order to avoid data security compromises, regularly check sites like haveibeenpwned.com to see if your emails have gotten hacked recently.

That combined with a solid antivirus like Webroot could be immensely beneficial in maintaining your computer’s overall digital health.

What is your favorite antivirus program to ward off would-be hackers and attackers?

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Juliet Childers

Content Specialist and EDGY OG with a (mostly) healthy obsession with video games. She covers Industry buzz including VR/AR, content marketing, cybersecurity, AI, and many more.

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