The terms “virus” and “malware” are often used interchangeably. However, they are technically different, so the question of malware vs. viruses is an important one.

Malware is a catch-all term for any type of malicious software, regardless of how it works, its intent, or how it’s distributed. A virus is a specific type of malware that self-replicates by inserting its code into other programs. Computer viruses have been prominent since almost the beginning of the commercial internet: The first one was created in 1982 for the Apple II, and other versions quickly followed.

Viruses spread by attaching themselves to legitimate files and programs, and are distributed through infected websites, flash drives, and emails. A victim activates a virus by opening the infected application or file. Once activated, a virus may delete or encrypt files, modify applications, or disable system functions.

Examples of Malware vs. Viruses

There are many different types of viruses. These are the three most common examples:

  • The file infector can burrow into executable files and spread through a network. A file infector can overwrite a computer’s operating system or even reformat its drive.
  • The macro virus takes advantage of programs that support macros. Macro viruses usually arrive as Word or Excel documents attached to a spam email, or as a zipped attachment. Fake file names tempt the recipients to open the files, activating the viruses. An old but still prominent type of malware, macro viruses, remains popular with hackers.
  • Polymorphic viruses modify their own code. The virus replicates and encrypts itself, changing its code just enough to evade detection by antivirus programs.
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Malware encompasses all types of malicious software, including viruses, and may have a variety of goals. A few of the common objectives of malware are:

  • Trick a victim into providing personal data for identity theft
  • Steal consumer credit card data or other financial data
  • Assume control of multiple computers to launch denial-of-service attacks against other networks
  • Infect computers and use them to mine bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies.