What Is a Botnet? And How to Protect Yourself in 2024

Sam Boyd
Sam Boyd Chief Editor
Updated on: June 6, 2024
Fact Checked by Katarina Glamoslija
Sam Boyd Sam Boyd
Updated on: June 6, 2024 Chief Editor

A botnet is a network of computers infected with malware and controlled remotely by hackers. These compromised machines can be used to send spam, launch DDoS attacks, generate fake web traffic, serve ads, or extort payments from victims.

Botnets are a significant threat if you don’t have the proper protections in place. They can operate on a massive scale, making them a powerful tool for cybercriminals. Understanding how botnets are created and used is essential if you want to stay safe from them in 2024.

In this guide, we’ll explain how botnets work and provide practical steps to avoid becoming part of one. That said, for comprehensive protection against botnets, I recommend using an antivirus like Norton. Norton can detect and remove malware, including botnets, and offers a 60-day money-back guarantee.

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What Is a Botnet?

A botnet is a network of computers that have been infected with malware and are controlled remotely by hackers. These compromised devices can be used for a variety of malicious activities, often without the knowledge of their owners. Botnets can be leveraged to carry out large-scale cyberattacks and other nefarious actions, including:

  • Sending spam. Botnets can distribute massive amounts of spam emails, which can contain phishing scams or malicious attachments.
  • Conducting DDoS attacks. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks overwhelm websites or online services with traffic, causing them to crash and become unavailable.
  • Generating fake web traffic. By simulating real user traffic, botnets can inflate website visit numbers, misleading advertisers and skewing analytics.
  • Serving ads. Hackers can use botnets to deliver unwanted advertisements to infected devices, generating revenue through ad impressions or clicks.
  • Mining cryptocurrencies. Botnets can hijack the processing power of infected devices to mine cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, benefiting the attackers financially.
  • Distributing malware. Botnets can spread additional malware to other devices, further expanding the botnet or installing ransomware.
  • Stealing data. Botnets can harvest sensitive information such as login credentials, financial data, and personal details from infected devices.
  • Click fraud. By simulating clicks on online ads, botnets can generate fraudulent ad revenue for the attackers.
  • Proxy services. Botnets can be used to anonymize the attacker’s internet traffic, making it harder to trace their activities.
  • Extortion. Attackers can demand payment from users to remove their devices from the botnet or to cease malicious activities like DDoS attacks.

Understanding the capabilities of botnets is essential for defending against them. Comprehensive security measures, including regular updates and powerful antivirus software, are key to protecting your devices from becoming part of a botnet.

How Are Botnets Created?

To carry out large scale attacks, a botmaster or bot herder will create a piece of malware that allows them to remotely and secretly control a host computer. From there, they need to get hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people to unwittingly install that malware on their computer.

Typically, hackers do this through the use of a Trojan horse virus, meaning the malware disguises itself as a harmless document or program and tricks users into installing it. This can take many forms, including:

  • A seemingly benign email attachment (like an invoice), either from a known or unknown sender. Downloading it will trigger installation of the malware.
  • A pop-up ad warning that your computer has a virus. Clicking on the ad to fix the issue will download and install the malware.
  • A software download from an untrustworthy website, which may actually turn out to be botnet malware.

Personal computers aren’t the only devices that are vulnerable. In 2024, with so many of our home devices and appliances armed with internet connectivity (called the Internet of Things), even your smart thermostat, DVR, gaming console, and home security camera could get recruited by a botnet to perform illicit tasks.

Once the malware has been installed on a device, the attacker will be notified and that device will be under his or her remote control.

How Are Botnets Used?

Once a large botnet has been created, the possibilities for malicious use are nearly endless. Most commonly, botnets are used to conduct Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks (or DDoS).

There are many different kinds of DDoS attack, but generally hackers will use a botnet to send a massive surge of web traffic or requests to a website, app, or server. The overwhelming influx of activity will often cause the target to crash.

DDoS attacks are commonly used to harm rival businesses, take down certain web content (political or terrorism-related), by gamers to get ahead of their competitors, or simply by trolls to cause disruption.

Botnets can also be used to do things like:

  • Send email spam.
  • Generate fake web traffic to drive revenue.
  • Coerce payment from a user to remove their device from the botnet.
  • Be rented out or sold to other hackers.

Typically, botnets can be very difficult to detect without the use of antivirus software. The goal of a botnet, unlike other forms of malware, is not to steal your information or coerce payment from you (though they can). Often, the botmaster will simply use your computer for small and ordinary-seeming tasks like pinging a certain website or network.

To you and your device, this activity barely registers. But when a million computers execute the same task at once, the results can be catastrophic for the target of the attack.

How to Protect Your Computer From Becoming Part of a Botnet

Botnets sound pretty scary, and the truth is they can be put to some seriously nefarious uses. But keeping your computer or device from being recruited by one is relatively simple. Here are a few tips that will keep you safe in 2024:

  • Run regular antivirus scans. This is the best and most effective way to deal with any form of virus or malware, including botnet malware. A reputable antivirus will prevent most botnet malware from ever being installed on your computer, and will easily remove it if you’ve already been infected. Brands such as Norton and Bitdefender are my most highly-recommended brands.
  • Never download attachments from email senders you don’t know. Be very careful about opening messages from senders you don’t recognize. If you do, absolutely never download any attachments until you can find out exactly what it is and who it’s from. You should also be wary of unexpected attachments — even from known senders — as their computers could be infected by a botnet and they could be unknowingly propagating the malware.
  • Run regular software and operating system updates to patch vulnerabilities. Most trusted antivirus providers and operating systems will offer frequent updates and patches in order to protect against the latest vulnerabilities. It’s easy to ignore regular software updates, but they could be key to keeping you protected from malware.
  • Avoid untrustworthy websites & ads. A common way bot masters trick you into downloading their malware is by placing intriguing ads or downloads in your path during web browsing. Avoid downloading free software from unfamiliar websites and don’t click on pop-up ads that promise to fix your computer. Interacting with these pages can often initiate malware installation on your device. Installing trusted anti-spyware software will also add an extra-layer of protection.

Quick summary of the best antiviruses for detecting & removing Botnets in 2024:

  • 🥇 1. Norton  — Best overall antivirus for removing botnets and other cybersecurity  threats in 2024.
  • 🥈 2. Bitdefender — Lightweight antivirus that’s great at removing botnets from older computers.
  • 🥉 3. TotalAV — Excellent antivirus to remove botnets, with great optimization tools.

Signs You May Have a Botnet on Your Device

Recognizing the signs of a botnet is crucial for taking swift action to protect your data and privacy. Botnets can operate stealthily, but there are some telltale signs that may indicate your device has been compromised.

Common signs of a botnet infection include:

  • Unusual network activity. Unexpected spikes in network traffic can indicate that your device is communicating with a botnet command and control server.
  • Slow performance. A significant slowdown in your device’s performance, such as sluggish response times or frequent freezing, can be a sign of malicious processes running in the background.
  • High CPU or RAM usage. If your device’s CPU or RAM usage is consistently high, it could be due to botnet-related activities like cryptocurrency mining or DDoS attacks.
  • Frequent crashes. Unexpected crashes or restarts can be a symptom of malware interfering with your system.
  • Unwanted ads and pop-ups. An increase in unwanted advertisements and pop-ups can indicate that ad-serving malware is present on your device.
  • Unusual emails or messages. If your contacts receive spam emails or messages from your account, it may be a sign that your device is part of a botnet sending spam.
  • Disabled security software. If your antivirus or other security software is suddenly disabled or cannot be updated, this could be a sign of a malware infection.
  • Unknown programs or processes. New or unfamiliar programs and processes running on your device may be part of the botnet.

Staying vigilant and recognizing these signs can help you detect a botnet infection early. For comprehensive protection and removal of botnets, we recommend Norton, which offers excellent malware detection and a 60-day money-back guarantee. Keep your devices secure with the right tools in place.

How to Fully Remove a Botnet From Your Device in 2024

Method 1: Use Antivirus Software

Using antivirus software is the easiest and most effective way to remove a botnet. I recommend Norton because of its excellent detection and removal capabilities.

  1. Download and install Norton. Visit Norton’s official website and download the antivirus software. Install it by following the on-screen instructions.How to Fully Remove a Botnet From Your Device in 2024
  1. Run a full system scan. Open Norton and select the option to run a full system scan. This will check your entire device for malware.How to Fully Remove a Botnet From Your Device in 2024
  1. Remove suspicious files and apps. Once the scan is complete, Norton will display any detected threats. Follow the prompts to remove or quarantine these files.How to Fully Remove a Botnet From Your Device in 2024
  2. Stay protected. Once the botnet is removed, you need to take steps to stay protected. For example, you should keep Norton installed and ensure features like Auto-Protect are enabled. Once done, as long as you’re careful online, you should be safe from getting botnets in the future.
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Method 2: Manually Remove a Botnet

Manual removal can be effective if you know which files and applications are malicious. However I only recommend it if you’re an advanced user. Even then, you should run an antivirus scan after removing the botnet because you won’t know what other malware it installed on your device.

Follow these steps to manually clean your device:

  1. Identify and remove suspicious applications. Go through your installed programs and uninstall any that look unfamiliar or suspicious.
  2. Reset browser settings. Restore your web browser settings to their default state to remove any malicious extensions or changes made by the botnet.
  3. Check system files. Review system files and processes for anything out of the ordinary. Use online resources to verify the legitimacy of unfamiliar files.

Method 3: Perform a Factory Reset

A factory reset will erase all data and return your device to its original state, effectively removing any botnet. Here’s how to do it for different devices:

Windows

  1. Backup your data. Save important files to an external drive or cloud storage (only backup data your absolutely trust, as you don’t want to backup the malware).
  2. Go to settings. Open the Start menu and go to Settings > Windows Update > Advanced options > Recovery.
  3. Reset your PC. Click Reset PC and follow the prompts to perform a factory reset.

Mac

  1. Backup your data. Use Time Machine or another backup method to save your important files.
  2. Restart your Mac. Hold down Command (⌘) + R immediately after turning on your Mac to enter Recovery Mode.
  3. Reinstall macOS. In the macOS Utilities window, select Reinstall macOS and follow the instructions to complete the factory reset.

How to Stay Protected After Removing a Botnet

After removing a botnet, it’s important you take the appropriate measures to avoid getting infected again. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Change all passwords. Update passwords for all your accounts. Use strong, unique passwords for each one. Consider using a password manager to generate and store complex passwords securely.
  • Enable Two-Factor Authentication (2FA). Wherever possible, enable 2FA on your accounts. This adds an extra layer of security by requiring a second form of verification in addition to your password.
  • Alert your financial institutions. Inform your bank and credit card companies about the potential compromise. Monitor your accounts closely for any unauthorized transactions and consider placing fraud alerts if necessary.
  • Run data breach scans. Use services like Have I Been Pwned to check if your personal information has been involved in any data breaches. Take immediate action to secure any compromised accounts. You can also use an antivirus with data breach alerts to get immediate alerts (Norton is one example).
  • Report suspicious apps. Report any suspicious apps or software to the relevant authorities or platforms. This helps prevent others from becoming victims.
  • Keep software updated. Regularly update your operating system, applications, and antivirus software to protect against the latest threats. Some antiviruses (like TotalAV) can alert you when there are new updates for your operating system or applications.
  • Be cautious with downloads. Only download apps and software from trusted sources. Avoid clicking on unknown links or attachments in emails and messages.
  • Review app permissions. Periodically review the permissions granted to apps on your device. Revoke any unnecessary permissions that could compromise your privacy.
  • Educate yourself. Stay informed about the latest cybersecurity threats and best practices.

By following these steps, you significantly reduce the risk of future stalkerware infections and protect your personal information.

How Does a Botnet Get onto Your Device?

Botnets can infiltrate your device through various deceptive methods, exploiting vulnerabilities and user trust. Here are some common ways botnets can infect devices:

  • Malicious apps. Cybercriminals often disguise botnet malware as legitimate apps. Once downloaded and installed, these apps can take control of your device and connect it to a botnet.
  • Phishing links. Phishing emails or messages trick you into clicking on malicious links, which can download and install botnet malware onto your device.
  • Compromised websites. Visiting compromised or malicious websites can result in drive-by downloads, where botnet malware is automatically downloaded and installed onto your device without your knowledge.
  • Software vulnerabilities. Exploiting unpatched software vulnerabilities is a common method. Attackers scan for devices with outdated software and use these vulnerabilities to install botnet malware.
  • Email attachments. Opening infected email attachments can lead to the installation of botnet malware. These attachments often appear as legitimate files, such as documents or images.
  • Unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Connecting to unsecured or public Wi-Fi networks can expose your device to attacks. Hackers on the same network can intercept data and install botnet malware.
  • Social engineering. Attackers use social engineering tactics, such as posing as tech support or a trusted contact, to convince users to install botnet malware on their devices.
  • Bundled software: Botnet malware can be bundled with legitimate software downloads from untrusted sources. Always download software from official websites to avoid this risk.

Being aware of these methods can help you take proactive steps to protect your device from botnet infections. Regularly update your software, use antivirus protection, and exercise caution with downloads and links to minimize the risk.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a botnet?

A botnet is a network of computers infected with malware and controlled remotely by a hacker. These compromised devices are used for malicious activities such as sending spam, launching DDoS attacks, generating fake web traffic, and more. Protecting your device with reliable antivirus software can help prevent it from being compromised and added to a botnet.

How can I tell if my device is part of a botnet?

Signs of a botnet infection include unusual network activity, slow device performance, high CPU or RAM usage, frequent crashes, unwanted ads, and unknown programs running. Running a full system scan with an antivirus can help detect and remove botnet malware, ensuring your device stays secure.

What should I do if I suspect my device is part of a botnet?

If you suspect your device is infected, immediately run a full system scan with an antivirus. Remove any detected threats, change your passwords, update your software, and consider performing a factory reset if necessary. Keeping an antivirus active on your device can provide ongoing protection against future infections.

How can I protect my device from becoming part of a botnet in the future?

To protect your device, keep your software updated, use strong and unique passwords with two-factor authentication, avoid downloading from untrusted sources, be cautious with email attachments and links, and use antivirus software to regularly scan for threats. These steps will help secure your device from botnet infections.

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About the Author
Sam Boyd
Sam Boyd
Chief Editor
Updated on: June 6, 2024

About the Author

Sam Boyd is a Chief Editor at SafetyDetectives, specializing in antiviruses and password managers. He has years of experience writing, reviewing, editing, and optimizing blog articles, and he has researched and tested hundreds of cybersecurity products since joining the SafetyDetectives team. When he isn’t exploring the latest cybersecurity products, he enjoys chilling out with video games, watching sports, and exploring new parts of the world with his family.

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