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Don't Be Scared Right into a Scam

There's probably nothing more underhanded than for someone to trick or fool you by pretending they want to help, or for someone to masquerade as a good guy, when in fact they're out to do you harm.

In real life, maybe it's someone impersonating a police officer or a priest and taking advantage of your sense of trust. On the Internet, it's a con artist masquerading as an Internet security professional or expert.

And here's their disguise: These con artists aren't using deceptive email messages to deceive you—they're tricking you with online pop-up ads saying your computer has been infected...and that you have to remove the virus immediately.

And when you follow their seemingly trustworthy advice and take action, all you've done is either paid for worthless software or downloaded their malicious software (malware)...exactly what you were trying to avoid.

They have scared you into falling for their ploy, and that's why their computer poison is called scareware. Maybe you've seen it. You may have even fallen for it...but don't know it.

Scared to the keys.

Here's how it might happen: You're reading the morning headlines online when suddenly a screen pops up, out of nowhere, alerting you that there's an emergency on your computer. It looks very official and legitimate. It will say something like this:

    Your computer may be infected with harmful spyware programs. Immediate removal is required. To scan, click "Yes."
Scareware Example

Sometimes the pop-ups are designed to look harmless and authentic. But at other times they can look and seem much more serious and urgent...like the ones shown here.

You're not sure if it's real or not, so what should you do? The message may seem authentic...and perhaps, in some way, appreciated by you. Thanks for the warning, you might think.

But the key to all of this is that we are all so afraid of having our computers infected, and our identity or data stolen, that when an alert pops up, we think for that second that it has finally and actually happened. A bug has infected our computer. It's a chilling fear.

And the con artists know it.

"Do something now!"

A few years ago, a security group (a real one!) estimated that 70,000 people were exposed to a scareware message every day! And surely that number has only been going up. Today, there are likely more than 15,000 versions of scareware "packages"—malware loaded behind a pop-up alert or ad.

When the pop-up or alert suddenly appears, it advises the user to take immediate action:

  • Install new antivirus software immediately.
  • Install recommended updates immediately.
  • Remove the detected virus or spyware.

And of course, the entire alert, message and recommended steps are part of the fraud. And there are two ways the scenario will play out: They'll sell you fake security software and/or steal data from you.

The scary part of scareware.

If the con artists just want to take your money, they'll run a fake "security check" that, of course, identifies viruses on your computer. Their recommended solution? That you purchase instant protection with security add-ons. They trick you into spending money while giving you a false sense of security because you're buying "vaporware"—a program that doesn't exist.

By downloading this fake software, you are also handing them your credit card information...which they'll be glad to use for their own purchases or to sell to someone eager to steal your identity or account.

The scary part of scareware?

  • When you click on a pop-up, "rogue software" will be downloaded onto your computer—in other words, a very nasty virus or malware.
  • In a worst-case scenario, the hacker can hijack your computer and lock up your personal information. Your computer can then be held for ransom. To get your computer back in operation, you have to pay up.

What should you do?

  1. If you receive a scareware message, close the entire browser window without clicking on the pop-up at all! The pop-up is designed to load malware if you click anywhere on it. Close the entire page without touching the ad.
  2. If you see a pop-up ad or receive a message similar to those mentioned above, avoid clicking the "download" button at all costs. One estimate says that 93% of scareware downloads are initiated by innocent (and unaware) computer users.
  3. Make sure you have Internet security software from a well-known company, which will alert you of and protect you from any malicious program you start to download.
  4. Rely on antivirus and antispyware products that are well known and respected.
  5. Always keep your operating system updated and surf the Internet using a firewall.

Most experts recommend that when you see a pop-up with a virus alert, you should close the window using the Windows Task Manager. With a little searching online, you can find a link that shows you how to do it.

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