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The Resource Center Online Security Issues & Protection The Resource Center | article

Don’t Let Scareware Catch You Unaware

Scareware scams trick victims into paying for fake security scans.

It seems like every time you boot up your computer, some application needs an update. Waiting for the new software to download and install can be a pain, especially if it renders your computer useless during the process. That being said, we are reminded time and again of the importance of keeping our software up to date. Because running expired software can make your computer more vulnerable to security threats, you’ll likely bite the bullet, stepping aside for as long as it takes to update your web browser or operating system before getting back to work.

After a few reboots, the update cycle might start to become second nature. In fact, you might even come to expect an update notification every few days or even schedule some time to perform any outstanding updates once a week. This bodes especially true for the security software we use to protect our personal data from malware – keeping it up to date gives the software the best chance to fight off the latest threats. However, you should always take care to review these notifications. Certain malware can disguise itself as a free security scan, advertising a program that would protect your computer only to infect it once you click through.

Secure updates or masked scareware?

Such programs are known as “scareware,” since they attempt to leverage their victims’ fear of viruses, the Federal Trade Commission reported. Often times, the notifications appear as pop-ups, alerting you that malicious software has been detected on your device. The program then offers a “free security scan,” which inevitably determines you are at risk of even more threats. Just as you start to believe your computer is riddled with viruses, the scammers contact you with offers for paid security software. Once you dish out the cash, the scammers retreat, telling you they have removed the problems. What you might not realize is that your computer was virus-free all along. Sometimes, the scareware program even drops off a piece of malware of its own, leaving you in worse shape than when you started.

One reason scareware is so effective is that it creates an urgent demand that plays to its victims’ fears. Plus, it does so under what is often a very convincing disguise. Those who use the computer regularly may believe they can tell the difference between an annoying pop-up and a real offer. However, scareware scammers have become incredibly sophisticated when it comes to positioning their scam as a legitimate program. Some even buy ad space on reputable websites and send email receipts with working customer service phone numbers, the FTC warned. With that in mind, it’s important not to get complacent, even if you’re a veteran web user.

Protect yourself

The best way to avoid falling victim to scareware is to train yourself to recognize it before the messages appear on your screen. Here are a few tricks the FTC lists that can help you spot security scan scams:

  • A pop-up tells you that your security software is in need of an update.
  • A message alerts you that it has detected an immediate threat on your computer.
  • A website you don’t recognize tells you it has completed a security scan of your computer.
  • An ad tells you it will delete viruses or spyware detected on your computer.

Even if you don’t recognize any of the above markers, it’s a good idea to make it a habit not to click on pop-ups containing links. Instead of selecting “No” or even clicking on the “x” in the top corner of the ad, use a keyboard shortcut or your Task Manager to quit the application.

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