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How to spot and treat scareware attacks

by | Dec 3, 2021


Have you ever visited a website only to be bombarded with an alarming pop-up? It might claim your browser has encountered a security risk. Or it might prompt you to run a scan right away to check for viruses. These pop-up windows can be unnerving, as they often look legitimate and contain urgent, worrisome messaging. In reality, they’re typically the work of scammers trying to trick you. These pop-ups are scareware. Scareware is a form of malware, or “malicious software.”

If you’ve encountered or fallen victim to a scareware attack, you aren’t alone. These malicious attempts to steal information or infiltrate your computer are more common than you might realize. Since they can be harmful, it’s important to stay alert for potential scams. In this article, we’ll explain how to recognize a scareware attack. We’ll also cover how you can treat your computer if it’s been affected by malware.

What is scareware?

Scareware is a social engineering tactic, where criminals use deceptive measures and psychological manipulation to trick someone into action. The goal of scareware scammers may vary, but it’s usually to have you download software that includes viruses or spyware, purchase worthless software, gain remote access to your computer or get you to provide sensitive personal or financial information.

A scareware attack typically comes in the form of a pop-up window or webpage. Usually, they are formatted to appear as though they’re coming from your computer. They often include highly urgent warning messages, alerting you to a security threat or virus. The language used in a scareware attack is meant to instill panic, anxiety and fear. It may make you feel the need to click the provided link or call a phone number on the pop-up right away.

Scareware examples

Criminals have used scareware attacks for over a decade. As a result, millions of people have been scammed. Some examples include:

  • In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) busted a major scareware scheme, according to BBC News. It involved a pop-up advertisement that tricked victims into allowing a bogus scan of their computer that then prompted them to spend $40 to $60 to fix alleged problems. The fake scan programs were called Winfixer, DriveCleaner, FreeRepair, WinAntivirus, WinAntispyware and System Doctor.
  • In 2018, the United States Department of Justice sentenced a scareware scammer who went after visitors of the Minneapolis Star Tribune website. According to ZDNet, the scheme included fake advertisements for Best Western hotels that actually served malware when clicked on. It slowed down victims’ computers, caused pop-ups and even shut down some computer systems. In addition, the scam caused pop-ups to alert victims of security issues and prompt them to purchase a fake antivirus program called “Antivirus Soft.”

A woman looks at her computer screen in an office building.

How to spot a scareware attack

When you receive a pop-up, look for clues that it is fake. Scareware pop-ups may contain misspelled words, improper punctuation or grammar, wonky formatting or off-brand graphics. These can alert you that the pop-up is illegitimate. Similarly, check the URL of the website on which the pop-up occurred. Scammers often take advantage of typos in common URLs: www.googl.com, for instance.

Next, look out for dire, urgent messaging. Clues of scareware include:

  • All caps
  • Excessive exclamation points
  • Immediate calls-to-action (download now, scan for viruses now, call right away, act fast, etc.)

If you are still unsure after looking for clues that the pop-up is fake, don’t click. You don’t want to risk accidentally downloading dangerous malware.

How to treat scareware on your computer

Since scareware is malware, check for signs that malicious software is downloaded on your computer. For example, you might find your device is running slower than usual. Other signs of malware include incessant pop-ups, your browser continuously redirects you or you can’t download legitimate antivirus software. While you can try to treat scareware yourself, you may need to take your device to a professional to have all viruses and malware fully removed.

Removing scareware from a PC

  1. Navigate to the Apps folder in your settings
  2. Find the scareware software within your apps and click “Uninstall”
  3. Ensure your computer is on “Safe Mode”

Removing scareware from a Mac

  1. Open a new Finder window and find your Applications
  2. Find the scareware software within your applications and drag the icon into the trash can
  3. Empty the trash can

A man types on his laptop.

How to prevent future attacks

The key to preventing scareware attacks is staying diligent and not falling for scams. Remember to always check the URLs of web pages you visit for typos and refer to this blog for a list of common signs that a pop-up is a scam. And remember: If you are unsure, do not click.

You should also install a pop-up blocker and download a security service, such as McAfee Security. CenturyLink Security by McAfee is available to all CenturyLink High-Speed Internet residential customers. This security program protects against malware, viruses, unsafe websites and other online threats on compatible devices.

When in doubt, don’t click

Scareware attacks are, well, scary. They’re meant to make you panic and trick you into taking an action. Anyone can be targeted by one, so it’s critical to stay alert for their deceitful nature. Keep your device and yourself safe by never providing personal information to an unknown source over the phone or computer. Finally, if you are in doubt if a pop-up is legitimate, just don’t click it.

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