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How to Spot Malicious Files


We are well into the Internet age, and that means that man of us are downloading new files off the web on a regular basis. Whether it’s stock photos to put on your blog or a new font for your resume, our work and personal lives often rely on scouring the Internet for free files available for us to download.

Entire industries have cropped up to distribute digital files. Remember LimeWire? It was a music pirating software that shut down for copyright infringement in 2010, a disappointment to its base of 50M monthly users. That was over a decade ago, before the Internet became the widespread phenomenon that it is today. Even then, this number reflected how popular file downloading is and always has been, which is why expert advice to just “not download random files” often falls on willfully deaf ears.

The fact of the matter is, it’s convenient and fast to get pictures, Word documents and anything you want off the web, where people both altruistic and ill-motivated share them widely for free. Today’s blog post will educate you on how to spot the difference between malicious and benign files when you find them out there on the Internet.

Avoid EXE Files

You might be familiar with file types like JPG, PDF and DOC. While any of those might have malicious code embedded that can compromise your device, you should especially beware of the file type that ends in EXE.

In some cases, your job might send you .exe files for a legitimate reason. The file type simply indicates that there is executable code contained within, and it will launch when you open it. Although you might trust your security provider to send you updated software, this presents a clear and avoidable danger when a hacker is the one sending you the files.

Bad actors may attempt to hide the blatant threat by naming it “Example.pdf.exe” or something similar, hoping you’ll be fooled into overlooking the red flag. Cybercriminals may also reach out to you directly, so beware random files sent unexpectedly by someone you don’t know. You can also give your antivirus software of choice permission to scan attachments and downloads for malware before allowing it onto the machine at all, cutting off potential threats at the source.

Download Buttons

Sometimes you use a site for the sole purpose of downloading or converting a file on there. However, these can be hard to tell apart from real, safe services or even be so cluttered with ads that it’s hard to navigate the legitimate parts of unsecured websites. Of course, cybersecurity experts recommend avoiding shady sites like this completely, but if you choose to put yourself at risk anyway, then at least remember this trick: Hold the right mouse button over the Download button and drag. If it’s a photo of a Download button meant to trick you into clicking onto a malicious website, the image will move with your mouse. If it’s legitimate, the button won’t move.

Web Filters

Whether you’re on a mobile device, laptop or something else that connects to the Internet, you can add web filtering applications to your line of cyber-defense. They may seem scary because they ask for access to view online activity and run in the background of all your other apps, but they can be invaluable tools for keeping you safe.

Browser extensions on your preferred computer make it simple. You can also install antivirus apps on your phone that scan new apps, websites and files to warn you about risky links when you first try to click on them. These tools can check domains, URLs, IP addresses and more to warn you of any and all suspicious behaviors. They block you from going somewhere unsafe so you have time to navigate back to less murky waters.


There are myriad more complex ways to suss out whether a suspicious file contains malware or not, but these are going to be the simplest and most accessible ways for most users to check the legitimacy of downloadable files they find on the Internet. Automating these scans ensures that you never let a suspicious site slide past. It’s safer than leaving security checks in someone’s hands who may fall victim to human error.

Automated checks run 24/7 to detect threats before they breach your system. Let cybersecurity technologies do what they do best, and keep you protected online.


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