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What is RAT Malware, and Why Is It So Dangerous?

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A spooky white rat on a black background

A Remote Access Trojan (RAT) is a type of malware that allows hackers to monitor and control your computer or network. But how does a RAT work, why do hackers use them, and how do you avoid them?

RATs Give Hackers Remote Access to Your Computer

If you’ve ever had to call tech support for a PC, then you’re probably familiar with the magic of remote access. When remote access is enabled, authorized computers and servers can control everything that happens on your PC. They can open documents, download software, and even move the cursor around your screen in real time.

A RAT is a type of malware that’s very similar to legitimate remote access programs. The main difference, of course, is that RATs are installed on a computer without a user’s knowledge. Most legitimate remote access programs are made for tech support and file sharing purposes, while RATs are made for spying on, hijacking, or destroying computers.

Like most malware, RATs piggyback on legitimate-looking files. Hackers can attach a RAT to a document in an email, or within a large software package, like a video game. Advertisements and nefarious webpages can also contain RATs, but most browsers prevent automatic downloads from websites or notify you when a site is unsafe.

Unlike some malware and viruses, it can be difficult to tell when you’ve downloaded a RAT. Generally speaking, a RAT won’t slow down your computer, and hackers won’t always give themselves away by deleting your files or rolling your cursor around the screen. In some cases, users are infected by a RAT for years without noticing anything wrong. But why are RATs so secretive? And how are they useful to hackers?

RATs Work Best When They Go Unnoticed

Most computer viruses are made for a singular purpose. Keyloggers automatically record everything that you type, ransomware restricts access to your computer or its files until you pay a fee, and adware dumps dubious ads onto your computer for profit.

But RATs are special. They give hackers complete, anonymous control over infected computers. As you can imagine, a hacker with a RAT can do just about anything—as long as their target doesn’t smell a RAT.

A hooded hacker in front of his computer
Maxim Apryatin/Shutterstock

In most cases, RATs are used like spyware. A money-hungry (or downright creepy) hacker can use a RAT to obtain keystrokes and files from an infected computer. These keystrokes and files could contain bank information, passwords, sensitive photos, or private conversations. Additionally, hackers can use RATs to activate a computer’s webcam or microphone discreetly. The idea of being spied on by some anonymous nerd is pretty upsetting, but it’s a mild offense compared to what some hackers do with RATs.

Since RATs give hackers administrative access to infected computers, they’re free to alter or download any files on a whim. That means a hacker with a RAT can wipe your hard drive, download illegal content from the internet through your computer, or place additional malware onto your computer. Hackers can also control your computer remotely to perform embarrassing or illegal actions online in your name or use your home network as a proxy server to commit crimes anonymously.

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