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It's a Trap! The Truth About Scareware

It’s late at night, everyone in the house is asleep and you’re online searching for the perfect gift. Suddenly, the silence is interrupted by a loud noise and you jump. No, it’s not a ghost or the boogeyman, it’s your computer.  Okay, so maybe this situation isn’t the stuff they write horror movies about. But, Scareware can still seem pretty scary.

Example of a scareware notification  Source: Webroot

Example of a scareware notification
Source: Webroot

What, exactly, is scareware? Scareware is a malicious, fake warning used to frighten a computer user into believing there’s a severe issue with their computer. Typically, it appears in the form of a pop-up window informing the user their computer has been infected with a virus. The pop-up also includes either a link or a phone number directing the user to contact tech support for assistance with the issue. Often, the computer will appear hijacked and if the user doesn’t comply with the directions, the pop-up alert can become louder, more intense, attempting to cause increased anxiety in the user to panic them into reacting. Often times, scareware will appear to originate from trusted sites, such as Microsoft. While scareware used to be mainly an issue that only affected lesser known websites, as hackers and malware designers have evolved and become more sophisticated, virtually any website could potentially be infected with malware.

So you’ve received one of these bogus warnings. What happens next? If the hackers have their way, you will instinctively react to the message. If the ‘warning’ has a link, you’re usually directed to purchase and install an anti-virus or other cure for the problem. Which, typically results in the exact opposite of what they claim and to make matters worse, you’ve likely also given them your credit card or bank account information. If the ‘warning’ comes with a phone number, the hackers will normally remote access into your system after you’ve called them (YIKES) and work to coax banking information from you, under the ruse of charges to ‘fix’ the issue. 

But, you don’t have to fall victim to their tricks. Fortunately, these types of scams rely on the user reacting and if you don’t do what they ask, your computer remains secure. Here are some important steps to help you keep your computer scareware free:

  • Prevention is key! Keep your system safer by installing a reliable anti-virus program and anti-malware application. Ensuring that you keep up-to-date and conduct regular scans is also important. Firefly can suggest and install a strong antivirus program for you.  You should also take steps to make sure your browser and operating system have the most current updates.
  • Always be aware. When using search engines, read the meta description (the short description of a website on the search page) prior to clicking on a link. Sometimes this can be a good indicator that the website you’re about to visit is not safe.
  • Watch for typos. Often common typos for popular websites will still lead to visiting an actual website, sometimes one that even spoofs the site you were trying to visit. These are the kinds of sites that malware designers purchase. A few letters switched around and they have a new unsuspecting victim on their hands! 
  • If you’re in the situation, keep calm and kill the browser. Trust us, we know the painful feeling of having to close all of your research tabs. But this is the most effective way to ensure you don’t accidently click another popup while attempting to close the initial ‘warning’ and download something harmful. So, breathe, and alt+ctrl+delete yourself to a stress-free state. 
  • Most importantly, DON’T DO WHAT’S BEING DIRECTED OR CLICK ANYTHING! Whether you’re being prompted to call, click or download. As Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars would say, “It’s a trap!”

If you’ve panicked, and fallen for the ploy, it’s okay. It happens. A lot. Time is important though at this point and there two safety steps we recommend to help minimize damage:

Another scareware example Source: Unknown

Another scareware example
Source: Unknown

  • Shut down your computer and bringing it to us for a diagnosis and removal of any potential virus, spyware or malware 
  • Contact your bank to let them know your account may be compromised

While we wish that you never have to experience one of these spooky situations, we know that, as active as our society is online, the likelihood is slim. However, if you do find yourself in this position we hope this list comes to mind and helps preserve your information. If not, we’re here for you and your computer system.