How to recognize scareware and its alarming tactics

Anton P. | June 18, 2020

Scareware is one of the sneakiest methods to prey on unwitting users. With bogus alerts and rogue programs, threat actors manipulate people’s sense of fear to execute malicious plans. Unlike any other type of malware, scareware masquerades under an extremely crafty message, which makes it difficult to recognize. Luckily, you can avoid being duped by following several simple rules.

What is scareware?

Scareware is a deceptive strategy that uses social engineering techniques to trick victims into downloading or purchasing software. The purpose of scareware is to shock, signal a threat, and create a sense of urgency by coaxing users with scary pop-ups and alerts.

A typical scareware attack involves aggressive notifications or banners proclaiming that your device needs immediate attention. In reality, these warnings come from a deceptive program that pretends to scan your device for potential threats. Such scam software applications usually pose as anti-virus tools. Hence, the attackers might trick you into paying for comprehensive removal operations or premium versions. Sadly, the rogue scams indicate non-existent threats, so their reports do not reflect the real condition of your device.

The fear-inducing messages can look highly convincing because scammers make them resemble the notifications from legitimate programs. To create a scareware tool, hackers copy user interface elements from real applications. They use names that sound legitimate and reliable – Total Secure, XP Antivirus, or AdwarePunisher, to name a few. Some of the fake security suite programs may offer tech support. In many cases, the bogus messages you receive can urge you to contact support specialists via provided phone numbers.

The results of scareware

The goals behind such attacks can vary from selling fake anti-virus tools to the installation of ransomware that holds user’s data in exchange for a payout. Nonetheless, it can result in any of the following ways:

  1. Personal information theft. Scareware deceives you into buying fake anti-virus software and revealing credit card details. By sharing your financial information with unreliable sources, you become vulnerable to financial identity theft.
  2. “Zombify” your device. If you install scareware software, hackers can inject a piece of nasty malware and gain remote access to your computer. They can make your device serve as a botnet. Then, they can continue to “zombify” other devices by spreading malware from your machine.

How can you fall victim to a scareware attack?

Since the attack mostly relies on social engineering, its success depends on the recipient’s affirmative clicks. Unless the target cooperates, the malicious program cannot do any harm on its own. However, scareware can be found in phishing emails that offer the recipient to purge a specific threat by downloading anti-virus software. Also, you can face malicious pop-ups or alerts through legitimate, but compromised websites.

In any case, remember this: reliable anti-virus vendors won’t scan your device before you install legitimate software. Most importantly, it wouldn’t approach you through scare tactics, such as frightful pop-ups and alerts.

How can you defend yourself against scareware?

  1. Use reputable antivirus or anti-spyware security suites that you can rely on for quality protection.
  2. Be skeptical and vigilant about alarming suggestions to download allegedly reliable software. Don’t rely on impulsive reactions even if you worry about the condition of your device. Instead, find information on the company or product behind the distressing pop-up.
  3. Be ready to close your browser entirely. Any interaction with malicious pop-ups can trigger the download of scareware to your device. You can quickly close the entire window by pressing ALT+F4 on Windows, or CMD+Q on macOS.
  4. Use a VPN. Although VPN cannot remove viruses from your device, it can prevent them from infecting your machine. Atlas VPN feature Shield stops you from visiting potentially malicious websites and blocks annoying pop-ups and ads. Also, VPN encrypts your online traffic, making it unreadable to anyone who tries to steal it.
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Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.



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