Written by Anna Faller
Published on January 21, 2021

The rise of viruses on Apple computers

Contrary to popular belief, Mac security is far from infallible. There's a prevailing misconception within the Apple arena that Mac computers are somehow immune to viruses and other malicious software — that simply isn’t true. But it is true that malicious software for Macs is relatively new to the cyber-scene.

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    Mac computers have been available only since the mid-1980s, while Windows PCs have long dominated the market for personal computers. With such market saturation, the Windows operating system (OS) was the prime target for cybercriminals. Macs, by comparison, simply weren’t worth the effort.

    But oh, how times have changed! These days, instances of Mac viruses are steadily increasing, as today’s crafty hackers create malicious programs designed specifically for Macs. A 2019 Vox study showed that the number of malicious or potentially unwanted programs (PUPs) targeting Mac computers has grown exponentially since 2012, far outpacing similar growth on the Windows side.

    According to Vox, Windows computers saw an average of 5.8 threats per device in 2019, compared to 11 threats detected per Mac computer. In other words, Mac computers faced almost twice as many threats as Windows computers.

    In 2019, Mac computers faced almost twice as many threats as Windows computers.

    Mac users are more vulnerable to viruses than ever before. In fact, viruses aren’t even the most potent problem — instead, digital dangers can come from a variety of forms of malware (spyware, adware, Trojans, and the like) all of which can infiltrate Apple devices. 

    But just because malware can infect Macs doesn’t mean your computer has to fall prey. The rise in Mac-specific malware has also triggered an increase in antivirus tools for Macs — and there has never been a better time to get your hands on a good one. 

    High-quality antivirus software can protect your Mac from all sorts of threats, just as it would a Windows PC. AVG AntiVirus FREE for Mac combines a no-nonsense malware and virus removal tool with the brawn of a malicious software detector and blocker — so you get protection and peace of mind.

    How do Macs get viruses?

    Apple systems can get infected by viruses in much the same way as Windows PCs. Essentially, a computer virus is a piece of code that harms your computer by corrupting files, destroying data, and wreaking havoc without your permission. But, what really sets a virus apart is that it’s self-replicating — that is, it can copy itself across files, computers, and data channels, all without your consent.

    Since Mac viruses took so long to surface, it’s a fair question: How do Macs get viruses, anyway? As you might imagine, a virus can gain access to your Mac in multiple ways. A few of the most common channels include:

    • Scareware: Phony virus infection notices are one of the most popular methods of spreading malware. Hackers and scammers use scary pop-up ads, known as scareware, to warn users that an imaginary virus has been detected on their computer.

      The ads claim that their antivirus software will repair the damage. But instead of eradicating the virus, this new software infects the system with malware — often with devastating results. 

    • Infected emails: Computer viruses can be transmitted through email by both downloadable attachments, usually masquerading as innocuous files, and within the HTML (underlying code) of the actual email text. 

    • Outdated software: Developers release security updates known as patches to fix security vulnerabilities in their software. When you don’t install a patch, you’re potentially leaving yourself at risk.

      Hackers can exploit these vulnerabilities to breach your computer and install malware. Pop-ups from popular programs like Adobe Reader, Java, and Flash Player can serve as convenient carriers for harmful code, if they’re outdated.

    • Messaging apps: Instant messaging apps — Skype, Facebook Messenger, and the like — are often used to spread computer viruses to a victim’s contacts through infected links sent through chat windows.

    • P2P file sharing: Peer-to-peer file-sharing apps, such as Dropbox and SharePoint, can also be used to create mass file corruption. Since services like these sync information to any computer linked to an account, if someone uploads an infected file, it’s granted immediate access to all connected computers.

    Macs are under threat from all kinds of malware

    Still, viruses and malware are not mutually exclusive. An umbrella term for “malicious software,” malware encompasses all types of software designed to attack your system without your knowledge.

    Viruses are just one type of malware, and there are many others. So, while all viruses for Macs are malware, not all Mac malware can be classified as a virus. Which of these dangers is most damaging for Apple computers? We’re glad you asked.


    As the name suggests, ransomware can hijack your files, hard drives, and sometimes even entire devices. Most ransomware will then encrypt your files so that you can no longer access them. Hackers and cyber-thieves often use ransomware to take control of valuable files and then demand a “ransom,” or payment, in exchange for their release.


    Can Macs get spyware? Of course they can. Malicious spying software, or spyware, is designed to access and save victims’ valuable information. This can include bank and credit card information, passwords, browsing behavior, and even keystroke patterns. Once gathered, this material can then be used for identity theft, or sent to another third party, which makes spyware removal a top priority in ensuring your Mac’s performance and safety.


    Endlessly irritating and deceptively dangerous, adware is one of the most common types of malware to appear in Macs. On the surface, adware inundates its victims with unwanted ads and pop-ups. But besides being able to track you or impede your device’s performance, adware can also identify flaws in your security, making it easier for other types of malware to sneak in.


    Much like the eponymous wooden horse of ancient Greek lore, a Trojan is a type of malware that finds its way onto your Mac by masquerading as a harmless, or even helpful, program or file. Once inside, it can steal your data or download other forms of malware from the safety of its hiding place. 

    AVG AntiVirus FREE for Mac constantly scans for all types of malware to detect and block them before they infect your Mac. And if malware has already found its way onto your Mac, we’ll find it and remove it ASAP.

    Doesn’t Apple protect against viruses?

    While in the past Macs may have been more secure than PCs, this was mostly because hackers were focusing on Windows. When Macs became commercially available, an overwhelming majority of people continued to use PCs — which meant that targeting Macs didn’t make much financial sense for the creators of malicious code. 

    So why don’t Macs get viruses? For most of computing history, the answer is simply that no one was trying to infect them.

    That’s not to say Macs are easy targets. Mac’s operating system, macOS, has effective security features that make infiltration tricky. And while you shouldn’t rely completely on these built-in safeguards, they do offer a good first line of defense. 

    • UNIX: macOS features a single-user UNIX foundation. UNIX runs on a more complex permission system than most Windows software, which puts a damper on running unauthorized applications. Whereas Windows will seek to run a program — user sanctioned, or no — any way it can, UNIX blocks unapproved programs, thereby limiting potential damage if a virus gets through.

    • Apple App Store: Believe it or not, but Apple’s famed App Store is also one of Mac’s strongest security features. With a closed developer network for screening new apps, the App Store requires a pre-screened Apple developer ID before making a new app available for download.

      Of course, hackers have managed to worm their way in. As of 2018, Apple now adds a digital signature to all of their apps before signing off on App Store distribution. If a downloaded app hasn’t been notarized by Apple itself, it can’t be opened without user permission.

      But even official Apple media might not be safe, as instances like the XcodeGhost in the Chinese App Store can still result in infected apps. Before downloading anything online, make sure to check that the website is safe.

    • Sandboxed apps: Macs also up the security ante with their sandboxed application structure. By keeping apps in the figurative “sandbox,” Apple grants them access only to the information they need to run. This means that applications on a Mac can’t talk to one another or see other critical system resources, reducing the ability of a malicious app to infect your computer with malware.

    • Removing Flash and Java: Back in 2010, Apple made the decision to stop pre-installing Flash and Java on new Apple products. Both applications are known for their frequent updates, which leaves users who might have missed them more open to infection. Using one of the leading browsers for security will also help protect you against online threats.

    Apple includes many built-in features that make it more secure, like UNIX and sandboxed apps.The features of the Mac ecosystem help boost Mac security.

    Why Apple security isn’t always enough

    With Apple’s popularity continually on the rise, we can only assume that Mac malware will adapt accordingly. While PCs might have been the main hacking target in the past, this is less true today. macOS’s in-built security suite is no longer enough to ensure your computer’s safety. 

    As such, many users now use the best antivirus software to stay protected. Computer bugs shouldn’t be an issue you consider only after your device has been infected. In fact, there’s never been a better time to arm your Mac with a powerful antivirus like AVG AntiVirus for Mac. Get world-class protection for your computer, absolutely free.

    How do I know if my Mac has a virus?

    There are plenty of scenarios that could lead you to wonder, “Is there a virus on my Mac?” If your system is displaying one or more of the following symptoms, it’s likely that your Mac has been infected with malware. 

    • You notice a decrease in performance or speed: Because most malware relies on your computer's resources to replicate, a noticeable drop in the speed of your system, or lag in specific apps, can often indicate the presence of infection.

    • You’re feeling overwhelmed by ads and pop-ups: Some malicious software like adware creates chaos through online advertisements, even when you’re not online. If you’re suddenly swimming in pop-ups and browser ads, especially on sites that are usually clean, a system scan is a good place to start.

    • The presence of unfamiliar apps: Viruses and other types of malware are known to install extra programs on contaminated computers. If you notice suspicious software or new apps and files that you didn’t install yourself, that’s a telltale sign of an unwanted bug.

    Preventing viruses on a Mac

    While it is certainly possible to remove malware from a Mac computer once an infection has been detected, we recommend first taking the proper precautions to protect your Mac from viruses and other unwanted visitors. After all, the quickest way to remove a virus is to avoid infection altogether.

    Install trusted antivirus software

    With cybercriminals crafting more malware than ever before, Mac antivirus software shouldn’t be an afterthought — especially once your computer has already been infected. To keep potential hackers and bugs at bay, arming your Mac with trusted antivirus software should be your first step when setting up your new computer.

    Use AVG AntiVirus FREE to keep viruses and other malware off your Mac.

    Follow best-practice security guidelines

    So, you’ve done your research and reinforced your Mac with a reputable antivirus. Great work! Unfortunately, slip-ups still happen, and no antivirus software is completely foolproof. 

    How can you protect your Mac while you’re using it? Easy: Browse intelligently and follow best-practice security guidelines to keep your Apple computer in peak condition. You should follow the same advice to keep your phone free of malware as well.

    For more information and updates on Mac best practices, visit AVG’s Ultimate Guide to Mac Security.

    Macs need antivirus protection, too

    It’s not just Windows PCs that need protection anymore — Macs need extra security, too. A comprehensive antivirus tool is the best offense for ensuring the safety and performance of your computer. 

    AVG Antivirus for Mac secures your computer by detecting and removing Mac-specific viruses and spyware. And it stays alert in the background while you work, to block malicious websites and dangerous downloads, all while updating automatically. 

    Superior protection for your Mac is only a click away. Best of all? It’s free!

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    Anna Faller