How to Recognize a Fake Virus Warning

Pop up messages claiming that you have a virus and you are in need of anti-virus software may, ironically, actually contain a virus that could harm your computer, cause costly repairs or, even worse, lead to identity theft. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and your business from scareware.

I have a friend in the real estate business in California who told me that he wanted to pick up his computer and hurl it through a window.

The cause of his frustration was an incessant series of pop up messages on his computer screen that warned he had a virus on his computer. He could not figure out how to make the pop ups go away and eventually his computer ceased working.

He presumed that the warnings were legitimate, but he later learned that he was the victim of a type of cybercrime called “scareware.”

Pop up messages claiming that you have a virus and you are in need of anti-virus software may, ironically, actually contain a virus that could harm your computer, cause costly repairs or, even worse, lead to identity theft.

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Scareware is sold to unsuspecting computer users who fear viruses on their computers. The scareware is either useless or contains damaging malware programs. The cyber criminals convince users that he or she has a virus that has infected their computer and then offers anti-virus software to remove it. The virus does not in fact exist until the user downloads the scareware.

The term scareware describes software products that often generates a bombardment of pop up warning messages that makes using your computer difficult.

The message may display what appears to be a real-time, anti-virus scan of your hard drive. The scareware will show a list of reputable software icons; however, you can’t click a link to go to the real site to review or see recommendations.  

Once the pop-up warning appears, it can’t easily be deleted by clicking on the “close” or “X” buttons.  In some cases, the popup instructs you to click a link to purchase the software, or just has an “OK” button or some other button or link to click.  Don’t be tempted. You do not want to click anything in the popup. If you do, you may then see a form to collect payment information for the bogus viurs protection product.  In some cases the scareware installs malicious code onto your computer, whether you click the warning or not.

Downloading from one of these fake virus warning popups  can result in viruses, malicious software called Trojans, and/or keyloggers— hardware that records passwords and sensitive data —being installed on your computer. This malicious software can cause severe damage and the inability to use your computer.  

In other cases, the popups direct you to call a phone number to get live help to uninstall the virus. Do not do so! When you call the number you may be asked to give your credit card information and/or give the person who answers your call remote access to your computer. With remote access they can install various types of malware. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns that the scareware scam has many variations, but there are some telltale signs. For example:

  • You may get ads that promise to “delete viruses or spyware,” “protect privacy,” “improve computer function,” “remove harmful files,” or “clean your registry;”
  • you may get “alerts” about “malicious software” or “illegal pornography on your computer;”
  • you may be invited to download free software for a security scan or to improve your system;
  • you could get pop-ups that claim your security software is out-of-date and your computer is in immediate danger;
  • you may suddenly encounter an unfamiliar website that claims to have performed a security scan and prompts you to download new software.

Scareware schemes can be quite sophisticated. The cyber criminals purchase ad space on trusted, popular websites. Although the ads look legitimate and harmless to the website’s operator, they actually redirect unsuspecting visitors to a fraudulent website that performs a bogus security scan. The site then causes a barrage of urgent pop-up messages that pressure users into downloading worthless software.

The FTC suggests that if you’re faced with any of the warning signs of a scareware scam or suspect a problem, shut down your browser. Don’t click “No” or “Cancel,” or even the “x” at the top right corner of the screen. Some scareware is designed so that any of those buttons can activate the program. If you use Windows, press Ctrl + Alt + Delete to open your Task Manager, and click “End Task.” If you use a Mac, press Command + Option + Q + Esc to “Force Quit.”

Lastly, make it a practice not to click on any links within pop-ups.

The FBI recommends that you take precautions to ensure your operating systems are updated and your legitimate security software is current. If you receive these anti-virus pop-ups, close the browser or shut down your computer system. Run a full anti-virus scan whenever the computer is turned back on.

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