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How to Remove Malware on your Windows PC
February 6, 2020
When you experience major issues with your computer, knowing how to get rid of malware safely and thoroughly is one of the most important things you can do.
But how can you find out which systems are impacted ? Can you trust your regular malware scanner? Is it fine to try to troubleshoot on your own, or is it safer to get professional help?
In this article, we’ll take a thorough look at malware, including a basic exploration of malicious software and how it can work to manipulate or take control of your PC’s operating system. We’ll also explore the basics of how you can know if your computer is infected, plus information on how Disk Cleanup can be part of a good preventive maintenance routine.
Once you’re caught up on the basics of the problem, we’ll move on to a survey of reliable malware scanner services. There are a variety of popular free and subscription options to consider. We’ll also provide some more hands-on solutions to persistent problems and offer some help building a strong security profile.
Let’s get started.
What is malware?
Malware is any software designed to act against you or your device. That means the term malware can refer to almost any intentionally damaging software. While it may sound familiar to most users, you may still have a few questions about it. For instance, have you ever wondered what the big differences are between malware and a regular old computer virus?
Virus vs malware
It turns out that your typical computer virus is actually just one kind of malware. Specifically, viruses are a type of malicious, self-replicating code.
Since malware is any software designed to act against you or your device malware can be any of the following:
- Standard computer virus
Whatever vulnerability it may want to exploit, malware is designed to take advantage of how we use the internet and our personal technology. This malicious software usually targets your information and your routine, posing a challenge to both online commerce and a whole swathe of professional applications.
Now that you know a bit more background about what malware is, let’s talk about some of the signs you may be dealing with it.
Signs and symptoms of malware
One of the main ways that users tend to notice the effect of malware is through a reduction in responsiveness and system speed. Because malware encompasses such a large variety of software-based attacks, it can impact your experience and your devices in just as many ways, though.
Is it malware or do I not have enough memory installed?
Sometimes lag and slow speeds can mean that you’re working with too little RAM. However, in many situations, a slow device can be a sign that malicious software is operating in the background.
When malware strikes, you won’t have as many resources available for routine tasks, and more challenging ones can become totally impossible. If you have a lot of trouble loading your browser or using basic functions within your operating software, you’re probably dealing with some form of malware. Keep in mind, though, that it could also be a more serious hardware or software failure.
Keep an eye out for inconsistencies in your available storage space
Are you running out of hard-drive space when downloading attachments or trying to install new software? An inexplicable drop in your available storage space can be another tip to watch out for. If your hard-drive doesn’t have as much space as your expectations or as the hardware specs suggest, it may be a sign that something is hiding just out of sight.
Other common malware indicators
Most users come across malware through a variety of different online sources. As a result, many of the signs of infection are most visible as you browse the web. You may notice changes to your browser settings, such as those you set months ago as well as any new apps. You may also spot what seems like new features, such as search bars or new programs, designed to mimic your regular interface.
You may find that some of your social accounts are posting spam or sending out fake emails, often through firsthand reports from your contacts. We all get spam in our inbox, and unfortunately, there is a risk that malware can be used to co-opt your accounts as a new source. Many of these problems can also manifest in lost storage space or responsiveness.
How to handle malware on your own with Windows Disk Cleanup
Fortunately, you have some options built into your Windows system tools for getting rid of malware. Disk Cleanup is a very simple, albeit effective, utility that primarily removes old and unnecessary files. Many users add it to their routine to clear up extra space on a crowded drive, but it has the potential to catch some low-level malware too.
This can be a good option to explore when you have small issues or just want to improve your security or hard-drive maintenance. To make sure you know how to handle things, here’s how to access the Disk Cleanup utility in just a few easy steps:
- Click the Start button in the lower left corner of your screen
- Scroll down and click on Windows System
- Click on Windows Administrative Tools in the dropdown
- This should open a new window with a selection of shortcuts to different Administrative Tools. Look for the Disk Cleanup shortcut here and double click it
- A new window should appear with the prompt “Select the drive you want to clean up”
- Make your choice with the dropdown menu and then click okay to begin a quick scan of the drive
- Select what you want to delete from the drive and click okay
If this is your first time performing a cleanup, you stand a good chance of clearing up a lot of new space on your drive. It may even be enough to help you get a handle on your malware problem, but read on for more information on independent anti-malware software you can download and start using fast.
The 6 best malware removal options
Are you wondering how to check for malware? For more persistent problems, you’ll want to take a look at some anti-malware scanning and removal options. There are both free and paid options available online. Here’s a list of the options we’ll profile today:
- McAfee Total Protection
- SpyBot Search & Destroy
- Avast Antivirus
Some of these options offer free versions so that you can deal with your malware problem as quickly as possible regardless of budget.
1. McAfee Total Protection
Well-known and highly regarded in many offices, McAfee is a long-standing brand with a big footprint in the world of tech security. They offer a huge variety of services tailored to both the consumer and enterprise markets.
McAfee Total Protection is their flagship offering, and there are 3 pricing tiers designed to support individual users up to larger households with more diverse needs.
While the solo plan provides a lot of great features, your savings quickly scale as you move up to their plans for 5 and 10 devices. Take a look at what each has to offer in McAfee’s pricing and features charts.
2. SpyBot Search & Destroy
One of the longest-running options on our list, SpyBot Search & Destroy has had a lot of staying power. It’s a relatively simple interface with reliable features, but it has been a popular option for years thanks to its robust free version. The SpyBot Free Edition provides thorough system scanning plus immunization options and easy updates so you can stay ahead of new types of malicious software.
To access more extensive features, you need to buy a 1-year subscription. For home users, as of today, that will cost you $15.99 per year. Check out the full range of SpyBot subscription options or download the Free Edition now.
Malwarebytes is another long-standing option that features a simple, easy-to-use interface. Their free version boils things down to just core functionality, with a streamlined scan and remove system. You won’t have to worry too much about costs or configurations with this setup.
For users with a bigger security or IT budget, their paid home and business offerings provide more comprehensive real-time protection and support. The current price of their basic plan is $39.99 per year, but there are plenty of tiered options and bundle prices if you need to protect multiple devices at home or in your small business.
With extra real-time protection while you’re surfing, the anti-malware suite from AVG is a great option to consider. Featuring a conventional scan and removal system, AVG also offers additional in-browser protection and easy updates from the free plan and then more if you opt for the paid version.
Are you sick of security issues with your web browser? AVG offers a free secure browser that you can download and use essentially like any other. The advantages include tracking and ad protection, plus easy security controls and better integration if you’re already using AVG for your routine malware protection.
5. Avast Antivirus
Avast Antivirus is a popular option that offers a comparable slate of free and paid services with some small differences. In particular, their free plan includes an option to protect your passwords, so your login credentials are secured in the application rather than your browser.
Avast has some pretty comprehensive protection if you want to soup-up your overall security, with integrated plans like Avast Omni that can protect a whole range of networked devices. You can compare different pricing options or read more about the free plan.
Another increasingly popular option, BitDefender offers good basics and competitive multi-device pricing. It’s particularly great if you want to secure an entire household of devices as opposed to just your own personal computer.
With the free plan, you get the same sort of standard protection you can expect from our other entries, minus the typical scanning routine. BitDefender runs in the background and they take pride in their minimalist approach to interface design. Compare their other paid protection plans here.
Consider reinstalling Windows from scratch
Reinstalling Windows may be a last resort for most users, but it can be performed safely and relatively easily. Because you’re essentially resetting your system, this is often a very effective way to clearing out malware that seems too difficult to dislodge otherwise.
Your Windows interface should contain more specific guidance regarding reset and recovery operations, so we’ll just provide a quick step-by-step of how to access your options.
- Click the Start button
- Click the gear-shaped Settings button near the bottom-left of the Start menu
- Select Update & Security from the new window
- In the left toolbar, click the Recovery tab for a comprehensive guide to your recovery options
A few other ways to boost your device’s security
If you download a new malware scanner or start using Disk Cleanup more regularly, you are already taking some big steps toward a better security profile for your PC. It’s important to make sure your device is properly updated, especially one that’s older, and good maintenance can make a difference. Actively addressing browser security and staying aware during your browsing are also great ways to boost your security potential.
When to ask for professional help
Issues with malware can easily get out of hand, particularly if you don’t have the time or resources in place to address small issues as they arise. Or if you are fixing malware downloaded by a coworker or loved one, you may not know about the problem until it gets serious.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell when a problem just needs a little more effort versus when to throw in the towel, but you can often save yourself more trouble down the line by asking for help. When things seem out of control, it can be helpful to consult technical support or your preferred professional repair service.
Microsoft Support is a great place to start with Windows issues. You can also call on outside help like the Geek Squad at Best Buy if you need more help.
Most of the malware scanner and removal services profiled here are responsive to user input and concerns, too, but sometimes there’s no substitute for the confidence of an in-person repair option.
Key takeaways about malware removal and prevention
With good habits and a basic routine for your computer’s security, you can avoid most of the worst problems associated with malware. Consider setting up a regularly scheduled malware check at the very least.
You can opt for every week to be extra safe or just when it’s convenient if you don’t want to stick to a schedule - even occasionally is a lot better than not at all.
About the Author: Dwight Pavlovic is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Dwight is a music and technology writer based out of West Virginia.