Malware vs. Ransomware: Do You Know the Difference?
Last updated on January 26, 2023
When it comes to cybersecurity, few domains can match its ever-growing lexicon and branching categories. It is no wonder that several terms are sometimes wrongly used interchangeably, to name the same process or phenomenon.
One good example is the use of malware vs. ransomware, which are sometimes utilized to define the same concept, even though these words refer to quite different aspects of the cybercrime world.
Understanding the differences and classifications of various types of malicious software can help you to avoid infection, learn how to protect your network and machines, and ultimately how to recover after a certain attack.
What is Malware?
Malware is a general term used to describe all kinds of malicious software (a certain software that causes a computer system to malfunction). Malware can be used by a threat actor in different ways: to spy on the online activity of the victim, destroy data, steal sensitive information, slow down a system, control a device, or cause internal errors.
There are multiple types of malware like trojan horses, worms, keyloggers, adware, and spyware.
The way malicious software works, spreads and presents itself is continuously evolving, but there are a few details that we can pin down to categorize and identify malware.
Malware, being such a generic term, comes under many forms, each one with its features and goals:
Spyware – enables the hacker to see undetected all the online activity taking place on the infected device and gather personal data.
Bots – self-propagating programs that use the power and memory of the host device to perform certain repetitive actions like sending spam, phishing, and launching DDoS attacks.
Rootkits – are used by cybercriminals to control a device, and can perform actions like launching files or configuring the system.
Worms – programs that can replicate themselves and move through a network automatically, without a host file.
Trojan horses – this malware is disguised into an innocent-looking, legitimate, file to trick users to execute it.
Virus – a common type of malware that spreads from one device to another.
Adware – is software designed in the form of a pop-up ad.
Ransomware – is a type of malware that prevents users from accessing their operating system or files unless they pay a ransom. It accomplishes this by locking the system’s screen or encrypting the files of the users.
What Malware Can Do
Malware can perform a variety of actions on your device like:
slowing down the systems of a machine
stealing sensitive information like financial and personal details, and it can even get to identity theft
controlling an infected device
destroying certain data
corrupting programs and files
How Malware Spreads
Malware can spread in several ways, so keep in mind that any infected site, program, or device can be a threat.
You can allow malware into your machine via shared files, free program downloading, email attachments, infected storage devices, and infected websites.
Or you can install it yourself when tricked by scareware. This malware pretends to be an antivirus that had discovered a problem, but when you click on the link to clear your device, you just deploy more malware.
What is Ransomware?
Ransomware is a particular type of malware, centered, as its name says, on obtaining a ransom from the victim. To achieve his goal of making money, the cybercriminal will block the victim’s access to a network or important information or will encrypt the data completely and will unlock them only after the ransom is paid.
This type of malware is harder to shake off and, usually, can be very costly for the victim.
Types of Ransomware
The variety of this malware is reduced, but we can still identify a few types of ransomware that are used most frequently:
Locker Ransomware – this type locks the user out of his computer completely. Hackers usually don’t destroy any data, just prevent the victim’s access to it.
Crypto-Ransomware – this type encrypts the data on the victim’s device, so even if the user can see the data, he can’t read it without the key. If the victim refuses to transfer the money, the data can be destroyed.
Leakware/ Doxware – this type works with confidential or sensitive data that the hacker threatens to make public if the victim does not pay a ransom.
When more than one type of ransomware is involved in an attack, we talk about double extortion ransomware or triple extortion ransomware.
Double extortion ransomware – in this type of ransomware attack the hacker encrypts the victim’s files, but after exfiltrating them. The stolen data is used to pressure the target to pay the ransom.
Triple extortion ransomware – in this type of ransomware attack the hacker goes after the victim’s partners, employees, or clients with additional ransom demands. He can also decide to pressure the target with DDoS attacks or other kinds of actions. It is no way to tell where the chain of attacks will end.
What Ransomware Can Do
Basic ransomware attacks will lock your device so you won’t be able to connect to your files, systems, and network. But an advanced ransomware attack will encrypt your data so you will not be able to read them even if you reach them.
Regardless of the ransomware type, making money is always the main goal of a ransomware creator, so the biggest harassment broth by such an attack is the money drained from your accounts.
After a ransomware attack takes place we can’t say what a cybercriminal will do next:
encrypt your data
steal data to leak important information on the Dark Web
go after your clients and partners with additional ransom demands
launch a DDoS attack
How Ransomware Spreads
Ransomware spread in a more targeted way, compared to malware in general.
Usually, ransomware is transmitted via phishing emails (spam emails with a malicious component). Such an email can seem to come from a familiar address, but when you open it or click the link inside it, malware is downloaded.
Spam messages on social media work in the same way: such an unsolicited message can contain a malicious link that will deploy the malware.
Malware vs. Ransomware
Malware can be described as an umbrella term that comprises also ransomware. That means that all ransomware will be malware — but not all malware will be ransomware.
The differences between the two terms can be observed on multiple levels:
Malware can be transmitted through links, emails, app installations, suspicious websites, or USBs.
Usually, a ransomware attack starts with a phishing email that will deploy the malicious file into a machine or network.
Malware includes multiple types of malicious software like trojan horses, worms, etc.
In the case of ransomware, the variety is limited.
A ransomware attack is much more difficult to manage as the victims must either pay the ransom for the stolen/ encrypted data or restore them from a backup.
Malware can be used to control resources, access data, or disturb the day-to-day activity of a business.
The main goal of a ransomware creator is to get your money. But to attend to this goal a hacker might use different techniques: steal data, leak information, DDoS attacks, and so on.
Malware is disruptive to day-to-day activity, reducing system performance, stealing data, and so on, but it won’t put a business down altogether.
A ransomware attack can have a long-lasting impact, affecting not only the victim but also partners and clients, and some businesses may never recover financially or in terms of reputation after such an event.
Myths and Facts
Here are some broadly broadcasted myths about malware and ransomware, and the facts that correct them:
Myths and Facts about Malware
– It is obvious when a device is infected.
In fact many malware can infect for a long time a device without being detected. Considering that 1/3 of computers are compromised at a certain moment, yours can have a malware infection right now without knowing it.
– I will stay safe if I visit only well-known websites.
Yahoo, New York Times, and BBC websites struggled with malware at some point, so no cyberspace is completely safe.
– You have to worry about malware only if you have important data on your computer.
Malware is always a threat to security as some programs can steal your account details, and banking details or access your email to send spam messages.
Myths and Facts about Ransomware
– Paying the ransom guarantees you will recover your data.
Sometimes you can lose your data even if you transfer the money to the threat actors. Only approximately half of the victims regain access to their files after paying, according to CyberEdge.
– Businesses are the only targets of ransomware attacks.
Cybercriminals do not differentiate between companies and individuals as long as they can obtain some money with their deeds.
– A backup will keep you safe during a ransomware attack.
Sometimes the backup data can be encrypted too, and even if you manage to shelter them you risk to re-install the ransomware when restoring your data.
How to Stay Safe from Malware
When we talk about malware in general and ransomware in particular, taking prevention measures is better than reacting during or after an attack.
Here are a few things you can do to stay safe online:
It takes care of all the layers of protection by helping you to bypass threats, detect any anomalies, and block malware in your network and endpoints.
Our solution features the Darklayer GUARD™ filter, the world’s most advanced Endpoint DNS threat hunting tool, that works in tandem with VectorN Detection™ smart traffic pattern algorithms engine.
With AI-fueled technology, this solution will keep you always prepared by predicting what tomorrow’s threats will look like.
In terms of ransomware, installing a good anti-ransomware solution could save you a lot of time and money.
Heimdal® is offering its customers an integrated cybersecurity suite including the Ransomware Encryption Protection module, that is universally compatible with any antivirus solution, and is 100% signature-free, ensuring superior detection and remediation of any type of ransomware, whether fileless or file-based (including the most recent ones like LockFile).
There are a few easy steps we can take to prevent ransomware. Cybercriminals can affect your data and security to the extent that you allow them to.
Neutralize ransomware before it can hit.
Heimdal™ Ransomware Encryption Protection
Specifically engineered to counter the number one security risk to any business – ransomware.
Blocks any unauthorized encryption attempts;
Detects ransomware regardless of signature;
Universal compatibility with any cybersecurity solution;
Any type of malware – ransomware or other categories – can affect you or your business in ways that you can not predict before an attack. That is why being well-informed in the domain of cybersecurity and staying up to date with what technology can offer is crucial. Information and technology are the two pillars of prevention.
There is no minor malware, so do not ignore any suspicious activity on your device and network, and be sure you followed all the steps to a secure online environment.
Andreea is a digital content creator within Heimdal® with a great belief in the educational power of content. A literature-born cybersecurity enthusiast (through all those SF novels…), she loves to bring her ONG, cultural, and media background to this job.