If you've ever been infected with malware, you'll know how annoying it can be. From brutal ransomware attacks which take control of your computer, to devious Trojans which hive off your personal data, malware is an ever-present curse of modern life. But what can be done to counter the malware epidemic?

As we'll see, VPNs are one of many things you can use to secure your systems. But first, let's remind ourselves why malware is such a big deal.
How serious is the online malware threat?

There's no doubt about it. Malware is among the most severe online security threats in the world. That applies to businesses, public bodies, and individual smartphone and computer users.

2017's WannaCry malware attack highlighted just how devastating the problem can be. Propagated by a common security exploit deep within the Windows OS, WannaCry was neutralized within days, but by then, it was too late.

Low ball estimates put the damage caused at 'hundreds of millions', while many experts think the actual cost is nearer $4 billion. And the attack had real world consequences beyond financial loss. It crippled Britain's National Health Service for days, impacting upon patient care.

And that's just one attack. Every year, malware infections lead to bigger losses, and more devastating data leaks. And every year, new threats emerge. For instance, 2018 seems to have been the year of cryptojacking - where malware seizes control of systems to run cryptocurrency mining operations.

But this year has also seen huge spikes in smartphone malware, massive data losses from supposedly secure corporations, and an explosion of cloud-based attacks. So the threats are coming from all directions.

How can you defend yourself against malware attacks?

Malware attacks occur in a variety of ways. For example, WannaCry spread because hackers identified a backdoor in standard Windows operating systems. But infections can be spread by attachments contained in phishing emails, downloads from fake websites, malicious app downloads, P2P transfers and infections over unsecured wi-fi.

With so many different vectors, it's sometimes hard to know where to start when it comes to online security. However, one solution helps with almost all of those problems: using a Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

For those who aren't familiar with the term, VPNpro explains all necessary basics. VPNs are apps which create encrypted links between your computer or smartphone, and websites or P2P contacts. When you connect to a VPN, your traffic passes through a third party server, which assigns you a completely new IP address. This has the effect of anonymizing your online activity.

So, how does that relate to malware? Actually, there are plenty of reasons to install a VPN if you have malware anxiety. Let's run through a few before you pick the perfect VPN for the job.

1. VPNs make unsecured public wi-fi much, much safer

Although many people seem to be unaware of it, coffee shop wi-fi connections are an incredibly unsafe way to surf the web, send emails, and buy products online.

If they feel the need, hackers can pose as unsecured routers, and look just like the real thing. Clients of the coffee shop or bar probably won't double check with the owners whether the hub is legitimate. And when they connect, the hackers pounce, launching attacks which essentially take control of target phones or computers.

When they do, malware injection is just one of many unpleasant consequences. But VPNs can prevent this. If your traffic is encrypted, you're a much less tasty target. And if your identity is anonymized, it's very tough to mount the man-in-the-middle attacks we're talking about.

2. VPNs make users much less susceptible to phishing

Phishers are attackers who want to manipulate targets into making unwise decisions. This could include downloading fake attachments, or handing over their credit card details to bogus technicians. And it's a huge problem, affecting almost everyone at some stage.

But VPNs can be a huge help here. Much of the time, phishers rely on their ability to monitor users. They need to gather information about their target, in order to create emails that will sound persuasive. And it helps a lot if they can inject tracking cookies onto target computers which provide details about users' web browsing history.

With a VPN, your browsing is much harder to track, and the sites you visit won't be connected to your real-life identity. Encryption also hides what you do under an impenetrable layer, so phishers will most likely look elsewhere.

3. Keep your communications secure

Unencrypted email accounts are one of the most common weak points in an individual's security setup. When you send emails to friends or colleagues, it can be easy to tap into your connection and read the contents - providing invaluable information for identity thieves.

All good VPNs will make this hard to achieve by encrypting every single word you send. That way, you'll just transmit a stream of code, with no way for thieves to convert it into useful information. And some VPNs include email filtering, along with secure email storage - making your accounts extra secure.

Use all available options to defeat malware

VPNs are an essential part of an effective anti-malware setup, so it's vital that you know how to find the best packages. But they aren't the only tool available. Anti-malware and antivirus software is just as important, along with simple behavioral changes like steering clear of public wi-fi. But the key takeaway here is positive: protecting yourself isn't that hard, and it could be the best decision you ever make.