Scareware: How to Recognize and Prevent It
You’re lying on the floor of your bedroom with your arms wrapped around your laptop, tear-stained tissues covering your bed like autumn leaves.
The hard drive is as empty as your credit cards, and your life is in ruins. How did you end up here? All you did was click on one message telling you a virus had to be urgently removed from your device. You acted immediately, just as they told you to.
The word you’re looking for here is “scareware”. Let’s hit rewind and start from the very beginning.
What is scareware?
It is exactly what it sounds like - malware (malicious software) in a package designed to scare you into making bad decisions. Like paying for fake antivirus software that will expose your credit card and personal information or allow cybercriminals to extort you.
Scareware comes in different shapes and sizes, but most commonly, you’ll see a sketchy pop-up ad in your browser telling you about a million problems and threats supposedly found on your computer. It says your files, personal and financial data are vulnerable, your life itself is in danger, and you need to act fast - download, install, scan, and do it immediately! The genies from Anti-Malware International are here to solve all of your problems, and the $50 they’re charging for the software seems like good bang for your buck.
Ironically, what you’re about to download intends to do precisely what it claims to protect you from. That evil piece of code will indeed scan your system - but only to steal passwords, hack into address books, and possibly encrypt your hard drive.
The aftermath of a scareware attack
Now you know the answer to “what is a scareware virus”, let us walk you through the hacking process. Say you’ve given in to pressure and clicked the “Yes”, “Download”, or “Protect Now!” button. You’ve even entered your credit card details and paid for the life-saving product.
From here on, things can basically go two ways. The best-case scenario is you’ll lose some money and install some useless software that will make a lot of noise, fix nothing, but won’t harm your computer either. You’ll get away with a good scare, and the bad guys will be able to pay for their groceries.
But if your scammers are of a less mellow kind, they will use your credit card info, your personal data, and might even hold the contents of your hard drive hostage until you pay a ransom (more on this here). You stand to lose enough to cripple your finances and develop an allergic reaction to antivirus software for life.
But remember: it’s in your power to avert both of these scenarios. You just need to look out for those telltale red flags to know how to stop scareware from ruining your life.
The 6 typical signs of scareware
If you haven’t been searching for new antivirus tools recently, but a website suddenly makes you an offer you can’t refuse - then stop right there. Set your online vigilance to red alert and see if any of the following is true.
The pop-up window appears out of the blue
It’s in your face, it’s bright and colorful, and it’s blinking like mad. Viruses, threats, issues found. And you were only searching for funny dog videos. Scareware alert!
The message in the pop-up requires immediate action on your part
Many online consumers fall victim to these scams because of the stress and pressure of urgency they feel. If you believe an ad’s creators are trying to instill fear and manipulate you, then they probably are.
The website claims to already have information about your system’s problems
Unless you’ve installed software from a trusted source (like your laptop’s manufacturer), no website can immediately scan your system or perform an in-depth analysis of the issues you might have.
It’s nearly impossible to close the pop-up
Scammers like to make the “x” or “Close” button minuscule or very hard to reach. And when you do manage to click it, it might start the unwanted download. It’s best to exit the page or close your browser altogether.
You’ve never heard of this software vendor
Dodgy generic names like “VirusProtectPro” or “Security Solution 2020” should jump-start your paranoia, and with good reason. Do a search and see what Google says about this brand. It probably won’t be a five-star review.
You’re asked to buy the software instantly
Even though some fraudsters go for the freemium model, most of them are greedy enough to ask for money right away. That’s a major red flag. Also, beware of fake websites handling payments - stealing your credit card info could be the scam here.
There will be other signs, like lightning-fast scans with heaps of imaginary “issues”, requests to uninstall the existing antivirus software, but that’s past the point of no return. This means you’ve already installed the malware, giving it license to feast on your data. But do not despair - there are still things you can do to save your device.
Read on, and soon you’ll be able to tell your friends and family how to get rid of scareware.
How to remove scareware and minimize damage
We’re going to give you some advice on how to avoid scareware in a moment, but what if the enemy has already breached the walls? Here are some measures you can take to minimize the damage.
Cut your internet connection
Don’t use scissors or other sharp objects; just disable Wi-Fi or switch off your router. This will stop the malware from sending your data to the perpetrators.
Turn off your computer and take it to the professionals
The tech guys can connect your hard drive to another machine, then scan it for malware without starting up your operating system. This way, the malicious software won’t have a chance to run and cause more destruction.
Log into your web and banking accounts from another device
And change passwords. Do it quickly, and start with your main email account most of the other services are linked to. Banking accounts should be a priority too, especially if you think your credit card info could be compromised.
Enter safe mode and run a full scan
This advice is only valid if you’ve got the necessary expertise and are willing to take certain risks. In safe mode, your machine will run on the bare minimum of services, and you can only hope that malware is not one of them. If your antivirus software has not been disabled, you can remove the threat. If that doesn’t help, go through any running apps one by one and uninstall the suspicious ones.
Hopefully, you’re now out of the woods. The question you might be asking yourself at this point is: how could this have been avoided? Well, you know what they say - an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
How to prevent scareware from infecting your system
They don’t give out medals for bravery on the internet, and it’s okay to be scared sometimes.
But to avoid getting scared by an attack, it’s best to be aware of the dangers and build a proactive defense. Here’s what you can and should do to prevent scareware from wrecking your life:
- Avoid clicking on ads appearing to know too much about your (computer’s) issues, offering a free scan, or asking for immediate payment
- Don’t open emails with suspicious subjects from unknown senders
- Keep your browser(s) updated to the latest version with all security patches in place
- Install antivirus software from a reputable vendor or use your OS’s built-in alternative
- Install antimalware software from a known manufacturer
- Use a pop-up blocker
Or get the all-round cybersecurity solution from Clario and protect all your devices with just a few clicks.
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You should fight tooth and nail for your cybersecurity, but don’t be too hard on yourself - we’re only human after all.
Research indicates that when making choices under stress, we’re inclined to think of the positive outcome rather than considering the downsides of our decisions. So when you see the “Your computer is infected!” pop-up, your brain prefers the idea of a good Samaritan trying to help you out to the alternative.
Stay kind and think positive. We’ll get through this together.
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