Malware, short for "malicious software," includes a wide variety of bad software including adware, spyware, hijackers, worms, Trojan horses, and viruses which can all wreak havoc on your computer. It can damage or destroy data on your computer. Malware can also hijack your browser, redirect your online searches, and even track your online browsing. Back doors can open up your personal computer to anyone on the Internet. Not only can worms disrupt your own system, they can replicate themselves on the systems of people you are in regular email contact with. Malware can also make your computer become excruciatingly slow and/or unstable.
There are no guarantees to protecting your computer from malware. Anti-virus software is an important tool to use, but it is no substitute for common sense. If you don’t update virus definition files regularly (weekly, at least) and scan regularly (the whole drive, including “Recycle” and “Trash” bins, not just system areas), then you may be hit with a virus or other software that is destructive and/or compromising.