Yes, Macs can get malware. Beyond traditional viruses, worms, and Trojans, there’s now a thriving ecosystem of adware and spyware programs that bombard you with ads and spy on your web browsing, just like on Windows.
Macs do have some integrated protection against malware, but it isn’t perfect. Crucially, that protection against malware doesn’t block all the junk bundled software that advertises to and spies on you.
Use MalwareBytes for Mac
MalwareBytes makes well-regarded security utilities for Windows. It recently began offering a free “MalwareBytes for Mac” tool. This isn’t a new utility — MalwareBytes actually purchased and rebranded a popular application named “Adware Medic” that we and others have used successfully in the past.
This isn’t a heavy antivirus program that will run in the background. It’s just a tool you can download and use to perform a quick scan — it should just take a few seconds. If it finds any adware or other malware, it can remove it. If you encounter a Mac infected with harmful junk software, run MalwareBytes and it can clean that Mac up.
How to Avoid Malware on a Mac
Yes, obnoxious junk software is still a problem on a Mac. Macs do have an anti-malware feature known as “XProtect” or “File quarantine,” but it only blocks a handful of the most nasty pieces of malware after they’ve become widespread. It won’t necessarily block anything new, and it won’t stand in the way of adware and spyware.
Much of the nastiest adware arrives the same way it does on Windows, via junkware-packed installers from application-downloading sites like download.com or via shady advertisements that push you to an unofficial, tainted installer. Get your applications from the Mac App Store or the developer’s website. Avoid running unsigned software — that means only allowing apps downloaded from the “Mac App Store and identified developers.”
Unlike on Windows, there’s no Add/Remove programs window where you can go to see what’s installed and quickly uninstall it on a Mac. On Windows, most of the “legal” crapware allows you to uninstall it from here. On a Mac, it burrows so deep into the OS that Apple has to provide instructions for manually removing all the popular pieces of adware. However, you shouldn’t need to follow those instructions — MalwareBytes should be able to do that all for your automatically.
Don’t have the Java plug-in enabled, either — that’s historically been the vector through which the worst Mac malware has spread like wildfire before Apple removed it from Mac OS X. Keep your web browsers and plug-ins updated, and consider enabling click-to-play to prevent Flash from running everywhere. Attacks on browser plug-ins like Flash and browsers themselves tend to work on all operating systems, even Mac OS X.
What About Full Mac Antivirus Programs?
Quite a few antivirus companies are now also creating (and selling) full antivirus programs for Mac OS X. These applications are similar to their Windows equivalents, featuring full background-scanning of all the applications you run and files you access as well as other features.
We’ll be honest here — we’re not sure what to recommend. MalwareBytes for Mac is free, quick, won’t slow down your Mac, and will remove most of the obnoxious software out there, which makes it out main pick. On Windows, most of the antivirus programs won’t even remove this obnoxious adware and spyware (called “potentially unwanted programs” or “PUPs”), so we’re not sure a full, paid antivirus would even be as good as MalwareBytes at battling the most common junk. (There’s currently no paid version of MalwareBytes for Mac that can run in the background and monitor your system, as there is on Windows.)
If you do stick to the Mac App Store and keep your software updated, you’re probably fine. On the other hand, if you download a lot of software from the web and potentially even bypass your Mac’s protections to install unsigned applications from unknown developers, an antivirus might be a better idea. However, as on Windows, an antivirus that’s always scanning in the background can make your Mac slower and drain battery life.
Tom’s Guide did some tests and recommended Sophos Antivirus for Mac: Home Edition as their top Mac antivirus pick, with Avast Free Antivirus for Mac in close second. Both of these are free, so you can try them without shelling out for a yearly license. Give these a try if you’re looking for a full-featured antivirus with on-demand scanning. If your Mac is already infected, these tools can perform a full system-scan for malware, just as they can on Windows.
“Macs don’t get malware” and “you don’t need antivirus on a Mac” are old pieces of advice that aren’t necessarily true anymore. Macs are vulnerable to malware — the Flashback Trojan at one point infected over 600,000 Macs around the world. Macs also now have a problem with adware and other junkware provided in software installers, just as Windows does.
MalwareBytes for Mac is a solid tool in any Mac user’s toolkit. Full antivirus applications aren’t necessarily as mandatory as they are on Windows yet, but you might want them if you download a lot of applications from the web and are particularly worried.