Apple likes to portray itself as the easy-to-use tool for cool creative types, impenetrable to rogue or malicious software swimming around outside its sanitized operating system - compared to Microsoft, seen as a buggy and bloated breeding ground for computer viruses.

But that’s changing. Malware that targets Macs just went primetime with the appearance of Flashback, a virus that hit the radar in September and seemed to metastasize this spring. Viruses are now firmly part of the Apple world, and as reps adopt Mac desktops, laptops and even smaller devices including iPads and iPhones they need to tighten their security just like Windows users have long known.

“We’ve seen this on Windows before,” says Liam O Murchu, managing director of operations for Symantec’s Security Response in Culver City, Ca. “The Flashback Trojan is not unique or an advanced threat. The standout is that it’s on the Mac.”

The Flashback virus whipped through the Mac operating system by controlling search results, directing users to ads for fake handbags to adult entertainment, says O Murchu (sic). And those clicks netted advertising revenue for the malware authors, potentially $10,000 a day, according to a recent post by Symantec.

While O Murchu notes that Flashback didn’t collect data on users — such as information stored on a hard drive — that’s almost beside the point because some malware does just that. And hackers are surely paying attention to the number of Macs infected with this recent exploit.

Still, many registered reps who currently use Macs appeared unconcerned about the recent attacks as they say they already use anti-virus software, and try not to fall for lures that can be embedded in spam email.

“Most of the time it’s just bad behavior that leads to those problems,” says Jude Boudreaux, an advisor with Upperline Financial Planning in New Orleans, LA. “A big thing is don’t click on any links in email messages. And I always keep my system and antivirus software up to date.”

That’s probably good. Because the reason Apple machines have stayed fairly off hackers’ radar is attributed to their low numbers — and that has started to change. Traditionally, with more Windows-based computers than Macs, hackers usually spent their time crafting code that could affect the largest number of machines. There’s just more bang for your buck.

But as Apple’s stock has risen, both literally and in the eyes of consumers looking to stock up on iPads, iPhones and MacBooks, hackers have paid attention.

“[Flashback] really shows us that attackers are looking outside of traditional operating systems,” says O Murchu. “We see them trying to establish the same economic knowledge they have with Windows for other operating systems.”

The way Flashback specifically infected Macs, was through a vulnerability in Java — a programming code that Apple’s founder Steve Jobs legendarily disliked. Java has long had a reputation for being a gateway for viruses as users can get infected by just visiting a web site written with Java, and pick up bad code like a tick.

Even though Apple issued patches in April, recent reports show the malware is hanging on, according to virus experts. Which is why it’s key for reps to update virus protection and practice safe surfing — whether a Mac user or not.

“It’s up to the user to recognize potential threats,” emails Tom Roche, vice president of operations and client service director of Reynders, McVeigh Capital Management in Boston, MA., which continues to use Macs. “Education is key and our protocol here is when any update or pop-up looks fishy, ask a question.”