Spam is unavoidable: It clutters your phone call history and chokes your email inbox. Like spam, scareware is another annoyance that seems to go hand-in-hand with internet access. It’s why you should never click pop-ups that say your system is at risk.
Most cybersecurity experts say scareware has been around since 1990 when programmer Patrick Evans designed a program called NightMare to attack computers. A creepy image of a bloody skull took over victims’ screens — and an echoing shriek assaulted the ears.
The aptly-named NightMare set a disturbing precedent. Cybercriminals have since used scareware to wrestle millions of dollars from unsuspecting victims. In this article, you’ll learn how to prevent falling victim to scareware.
Scareware definition: How this cyberattack works
Picture this: You’re surfing the web, minding your own business. Then a random pop-up says your computer has a virus. It looks legitimate, with a technical design similar to that of Apple or another trustworthy brand.
Since it looks like it came from a reliable source, you fall for the pop-up’s claims. You immediately feel stressed out. After all, your whole system could be in danger.
Most scareware pop-ups urge you to click it or else.
For example, they’ll say to “click here” to remove the viruses. Since you don’t want your device infected with malware, you might do what the pop-up asks. Unfortunately, clicking on the link will download viruses onto your device.
That’s right: You didn’t have any viruses on your phone or computer. The pop-up was lying. Cybercriminals manipulated your emotions so they could scare you into action.
How you might encounter scareware
Famous scareware attacks came in many different forms. You can encounter these nasty scams on your phone, tablet or computer. This is why you need antivirus protection on all your devices. Here’s how to set up cybersecurity programs on your iPhone or Android.
Here are some scareware attack examples you may have heard of:
- You might find ads for computer security software that says it detects many threats on your computer. The FBI says that one international cybercrime ring stole more than $74 million from victims before its apprehension in 2011.
- One FTC case led to a $163 million judgment against a marketer who promoted scareware. The federal court said that the criminal used scareware to trick customers into thinking they had computer issues.
- Do you like the Minneapolis Star Tribune? Here’s a bombshell: Back in 2018, the Department of Justice said the paper’s website hosted an ad that led readers to a scareware-infested website that slowed down their systems. Pop-ups promised to fix the issues for around $50.
As you can tell, scareware social engineering schemes are incredibly dangerous. They can steal a ton of money. Now that you know some scareware history, let’s move on to the more critical part. How to prevent it.
The easiest way to protect yourself
Not sure how to spot a scareware scam? First, ask yourself if the pop-up is hard to close. Scammers make it difficult for you to shut down the box, so even if you hit X or close, it might not disappear immediately.
You might also see icons you can’t click on. That’s because scareware designers will spoof icons from reputable companies. They’re mooching off those companies’ good reputations to trick you into thinking they work together.
So if you can’t click through to the sites, take that as a red flag. Of course, the best way to protect yourself from scareware is to protect your device with robust and up-to-date antivirus software. Kim recommends our sponsor, TotalAV.
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