Malware vs Virus: Understanding the Differences and Staying Protected

April 24, 2023 in Malware

Cybercrimes take many forms, but often, the simplest and most enduring are to be feared above all else. This is certainly true of malware and viruses, which remain among the biggest threats as they continue to evolve. These terms often need clarification, and for good reason: there's a lot of overlap. How they function within computer systems and how they're handled, however, can differ — so it's important to gain a nuanced understanding of each.

To help you make sense of these concepts, we've provided an in-depth comparison of malware vs viruses. We'll provide basic definitions before breaking down what sets these cyberthreats apart.


Malware is an umbrella term that covers many types of malicious software. If it's designed by hackers and involves some form of ill intent, it qualifies.

The scope of these threats cannot be downplayed; they involve a myriad of tools, techniques, and methods. Unlike viruses, they are not limited to self-replication. While it's possible for them to harm computers or networks, this isn't necessarily the main intent; rather, hackers are more intent on accessing sensitive data or finding unique ways to profit illicitly.

Common types

Malware takes many forms, making it that much more difficult to prevent, detect, and mitigate. Sophisticated cybercriminals develop new strategies all the time — and meanwhile, some of the oldest forms of malware remain as dangerous as they were decades ago.

Today's top attacks include:

  • Adware. If you've ever dealt with annoying and unwanted pop-ups that seem incessant, you're probably already familiar with adware. This may seem merely frustrating, but it can prove surprisingly dangerous: it often opens the door to more obviously malicious attacks.

  • Spyware. As a specific form of adware, spyware monitors users' online activity and may forward this to third parties without victims' consent. Often, cybercriminals use spyware to covertly obtain sensitive information such as passwords or credit card numbers.

  • Keyloggers. Capable of recording users' keystrokes, keyloggers help cybercriminals obtain passwords and other sensitive data. Although this is a dangerous form of spyware, it can be used legally in certain contexts. As malware, however, keylogging infects devices as malicious software is downloaded.

  • Cryptojacking. These days, cryptocurrency plays an increasingly prominent role in malware attacks. A specific subset known as cryptojacking is designed to stay as hidden as possible while allowing cybercriminals to easily mine for crypto. This allows hackers to avoid the sophisticated hardware and huge operational costs involved in mining.

  • Fileless malware. Harnessing the power of native tools that seem legitimate, fileless malware manages to avoid leaving a footprint. This can make it uniquely difficult to detect. Instead of relying on hard drives, this type of virus works within the memory of targeted devices. Fileless attacks allow threat actors to evade traditional security solutions while opening the door to further malicious activity.

  • Scareware. Designed to produce an emotional response, scareware relies on social engineering to amp up the perception of threat. This, in turn, may convince victims to download software that they assume provides protection — but that, in reality, is malicious. These attacks may begin with pop-up ads, which purport to inform victims of key cyberthreats they're facing. In today's threat-filled digital environments, even seemingly tech-savvy users are more likely to fall for such schemes.

  • Ransomware. As one of the most alarming types of malware, ransomware functions exactly as its name suggests: hackers block website access until they're paid steep ransoms. These attacks can cause huge losses in profitability, not to mention, reputational damage — and financial damage from both mitigation efforts and, often, giving in and paying the ransom.

  • Rootkits. Designed to give malicious parties privileged access without the victim's consent, rootkits help cybercriminals gain access to (or control over) not only individual devices but often, entire networks. As soon as threat actors gain access, they proceed with stealing sensitive data, installing malware, or even participating in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. This form of malware is notoriously insidious, so it can be difficult to detect.

  • Virus. As we'll discuss in more detail below, viruses are a specific type of malware. Like the real-world viruses that harm human hosts, these digital versions can quickly replicate by attaching themselves to executable files and spreading to other programs or devices.

  • Trojans. The distinct name of this malware category comes from the concept of the Trojan horse, which is believed to have helped the Greeks gain access to Troy. In the modern digital world, Trojans appear to be legitimate but can quickly take over targeted devices.


A virus is a specific type of malware, but not all malware attacks involve viruses. Still, this category is far-reaching and can be responsible for significant damage to today's devices, networks, and servers. Viruses have plagued the internet for decades and, unfortunately, aren't about to disappear anytime soon.

If there's a silver lining, however, it's that viruses have clear limitations, especially as compared to other forms of malware. They impart damage solely through replication and typically remain dormant until they're activated by some type of threat. Unfortunately, components of viruses and other malware methods can be integrated to deliver especially damaging attacks.

Common types

Although computer viruses exist as a specific subset of malware, they can also take many forms. A few of the most common types are highlighted below:

  • Boot sector virus. Targeting reserved portions of disks that contain the code required for starting operating systems, boot sector viruses can make it impossible to use computers whatsoever. They target not only computers but also many attached devices. While it's common for these attacks to initiate with USB devices, they may also result from malicious downloads and installs — or even shared networks that contain infected devices.

  • Browser hijacker. Meant to modify internet browsers without alerting targeted users, browser hijackers (sometimes simply referred to as hijackers) may redirect users to unwanted websites. These attacks may also prompt suspiciously slow loading times or excessive pop-up advertisements. These viruses can be spread via browser vulnerability exploits and often occur when browser toolbars or add-ons are implemented.

  • Direct action virus. Directly attached to executable files, these viruses are embedded in seemingly legitimate programs which, once downloaded, facilitate the further spread of the virus. This is one of the most common and familiar types of viruses, and yet, it remains exceedingly difficult for many users to avoid. It can be attached to programs that appear legitimate but may also be spread via spearphishing campaigns.

  • File infector virus. Designed to infect executable files, these viruses can attach themselves to many applications or programs. Main targets include .com and .exe extensions. These viruses replicate and spread easily but may also be easier to detect, simply because this is the category most people think of when picturing a 'classic' virus.

  • Macro virus. Reliant on programming languages known as macro languages, macro viruses can be inserted into trusted word processing programs or even embedded within key documents. Due to their unique composition, these viruses can cause damage to computer software. They can also replicate by sending infected attachments via email.

  • Multipartite virus. This is extremely dangerous because it can simultaneously carry out multiple types of attacks, but multipartite viruses involve two concerns we've already discussed: executable files and boot sectors. This hybrid approach makes these viruses uniquely difficult to prevent and eradicate. The effects may include rapidly consumed memory, reformatted hard drives, and even reinfection after the virus appears to be out of the picture.

  • Overwrite virus. Capable of destroying the original program's code, an overwrite virus deletes data while spreading. The result? Fully compromised files that are impossible to recover. Backups provide a key source of defense, but this still remains one of the most devastating types of viruses.

  • Polymorphic virus. As a specific type of file infector, polymorphic viruses avoid detection simply by creating modified versions of themselves. Also known as metamorphic viruses, these have a uniquely dangerous shape-shifting effect that allows them to bypass many antivirus solutions.

  • Resident virus. Hidden within computer memory and capable of infecting drives and disks, resident viruses can target a variety of files, even after the originally infected file stops running. Storage within the memory grants this type of virus easy access to many parts of the device. These have even been known to impact antivirus programs.

  • Web scripting virus. Adept at exploiting browser vulnerabilities, web scripting viruses rely on client code scripts. These attacks increasingly involve social media platforms and message boards. Web scripting viruses can prompt infected ads and may even be used to launch DDoS attacks.

Key differences

While viruses technically exist as a subtype of malware, these are typically treated as two separate categories. This distinction stems, in part, because the infection methods and use of replication can differ to a significant degree. There's still a lot of overlap, however, so we've highlighted a few of the most noteworthy differences below:

Methods of infection

Methods of infection can sometimes be used to distinguish viruses from other types of malware, although both are heavily associated with spearphishing and email attachments. How these methods are utilized, however, may differ somewhat.

Often, malware involves a strong component of social engineering. While this is possible with viruses, it's less common. By convincing targeted users to take specific actions, cybercriminals can trick them into providing access to sensitive information or even performing malicious actions. With viruses, infections are far more likely to occur via compromised software or even external media.


The main way to distinguish viruses from other malware categories is to take a close look at the presence of replication. While malware can involve many strategies, replication forms the basis of most viruses. Again, it's helpful to compare these to the viruses that infect the human body. Just as these seek to infect as many cells as possible, the tech-oriented version self-replicates and spreads to other files or devices.


Another key way to distinguish malware vs viruses? Look carefully at how and when these function. Malware requires constant access to the systems it strives to compromise. From there, it can communicate with senders and ultimately, gain access to sensitive data — or complete other malicious actions. Viruses, however, remain dormant until they've officially been activated. Only then will they complete specific tasks, such as deleting files or disabling security settings.


A lot can be discerned about malware and viruses simply by examining their primary goals. With viruses, the objective is often simple: damage as many devices or networks as possible. Cybercriminals won't necessarily profit from these attacks unless they are integrated with overarching malware campaigns.

Goals for malware can be quite varied, with many cybercriminals determined to access sensitive data for financial gain. How this is accomplished will differ significantly from one malware attack to the next. With ransomware, for example, the financial boost occurs after a ransom has been paid, while other attacks may result in stolen credit card information.


Viruses tend to be associated with the early days of the internet, but they remain prevalent to this day. An earlier version of this problem that remains memorable involved an alleged image of the athlete Anna Kournikova. Victims were tricked into installing email attachments involving the virus, although it did limited damage compared to other attacks. Years later, the WannaCry attack revealed the untold damage that could be done when classic virus strategies of self-replication joined forces with the concept of ransomware.

Ransomware has frequently hit headlines as of late, but other types of malware attacks also abound. The Keylogger reveals the power of modular malware for stealing credentials. Data gained while recording these keystrokes are then distributed to threat actors. Another alarming attack known as TrickBot has proven how adept at evolving malware has become, having shifted from its original banking Trojan format to a sophisticated modular enterprise.

Cybersecurity measures

Because replication and infection methods differ somewhat between viruses and other forms of malware, these may require different cybersecurity initiatives to keep websites, devices, and networks safe. There is a lot of overlap, however, and preventative methods that work wonders for staving off malware attacks will often do the same for viruses — and vice versa.

In either situation, a layered approach is key. This should include a heavy emphasis on both antivirus and anti-malware software, as well as general security best practices such as firewalls, scanning, and strong password protection. Backups are also essential, as both viruses and malware can compromise data. What's more, some types of malware attacks (such as ransomware) may be less effective if you have a strong backup protocol in place.

Fixing infected systems

Whether you have been compromised by malware or a virus, the initial stages of mitigation will look similar: disconnect from the internet and make the most of highly-trusted antivirus software or anti-malware software. Hopefully, you can rely on backups to restore your files or content.

Once your system is restored, you'll want to implement a more proactive security strategy to prevent future attacks. Because this calls for such a comprehensive approach, it's worth your while to seek a solid security solution with experts who can put the most effective strategies into play.

Secure your website with SiteLock

If you've suffered a malware attack or a virus infection, you understand just how devastating these can be — and you're no doubt determined to avoid future issues. Don't get complacent; work with SiteLock to implement comprehensive security solutions. These could include:

  • Malware scanning. Running continuously, our malware scanner will alert you as soon as any potential problems are detected. Our goal is to find and stop malware in its tracks.

  • Malware removal. If, while scanning, we encounter any malware on your site, we will work promptly to remove it. From there, we can also handle website restoration.

  • Website backups. Achieve peace of mind with our backup system, which eliminates the need for a remote database connection. Automatic and manual backups are available via FTP or SFTP connections.

Don't let malware or viruses compromise your security or that of your valued clients and customers. With our help, you can keep cybercriminals at bay. If you're ready to take the next step, learn about our high-level security plans or reach out for more information.

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