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Avast Academy Security Malware What Is Scareware? Detection, Prevention & Removal

What Is Scareware? Detection, Prevention & Removal

Ever had pop-ups flash onto your screen with dire warnings that your computer is infected with a virus? If so, you’ve experienced the very definition of a scareware attack, which tricks people into paying for fake security software. Learn how to recognize and remove scareware, and why using trusted antivirus software will help you avoid being scammed in the future.

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What is scareware?

Scareware is a malware scam technique that uses pop-up security alerts and other social engineering tricks to frighten you into paying for fake software disguised as real cybersecurity protection. Scareware may be useless bloatware and relatively harmless, or in worse cases, actual malware.

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    Posing as warnings from antivirus software companies, scareware notifications use social engineering fear tactics to convince people that supposedly critical malware infections need to be urgently resolved.

    After tricking victims into paying for the scam software, scareware often then infects them with the very same type of malware it had promised to remove. And so long as the scammers’ malware is on your system, you remain vulnerable to additional extortion attempts like ransomware attacks, or the use of spyware to steal your credit card information and commit identity theft.

    How to identify scareware

    Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to spot the fake virus warning scams that cybercriminals use to spread scareware.

    The first indication of scareware is a barrage of notifications or banners appearing on your screen. These fake antivirus pop-ups are designed to cause panic by warning you about urgent security breaches — probably with all-caps text and lots of exclamation points. With the spread of iOS and Android scareware, it’s important to stay alert across platforms and operating systems.

    The first sign of scareware is a barrage of notifications appearing on your screen. These pop-ups are designed to cause panic by warning you about urgent security breaches.

    Legitimate cybersecurity companies will never use such invasive fear-mongering tactics to promote their products. In fact, the more dramatic and persistent these alerts are, the more likely they are to be scareware. Even if you’re sure a notification or product offering is genuine, always verify new software with a quick web search before downloading it.

    Unlike real virus removal tools, malware also typically reduces your computer’s performance. And you’ll likely see even more pop-ups after installing scareware. So even if you identify scareware only after the fact, you should act immediately. Every minute you wait exposes you to further vulnerabilities and increases the risk of identity theft.

    Examples of scareware

    The most common scareware examples are all some variation of the classic virus removal scam. Fake virus pop-ups or notifications usually claim that the user has multiple infections that will have dire consequences if they’re not immediately removed. 

    A typical fake virus warning pop-up used to intimidate users into downloading scareware.An example of the kind of notification you might see in a scareware attack.

    Sometimes these computer virus pop-ups will even misrepresent themselves as coming from your operating system, or another trusted source. The Google virus alert scam is one such tactic used to scare people into downloading malware.

    A scareware mobile cleaner pop-up notification designed to look like a genuine Google virus alert.An example of a scareware notification designed to look like a real Google alert.

    Another deceptive malware technique favored by scareware scammers is to use phony “Close” or “X” buttons, which will automatically install malware when clicked. Lots of online ads use the same trick.

    If you accidentally download scareware, you may get a program that looks and acts like a real antivirus tool at first glance. But in reality, the sham software is always a total dud, offering zero protection against real cyber-threats.

    Instead, scareware apps are often malware in disguise, seeding your machine with computer viruses or spyware that corrupt your files and leave you wide open to credit card fraud and identity theft.

    How to remove scareware

    If you’ve unwittingly downloaded scareware onto your device, you need to remove it immediately. Deleting the download is a good place to start with scareware removal, but you may miss more stubborn programs or files left behind by the malware. For this, you’ll need to install genuine antivirus software that can root out any lingering traces.

    Here’s how to remove scareware in three steps:

    Step 1: Uninstall the fake antivirus program

    Since the scareware will be hiding in plain sight as an apparently legitimate antivirus program, identifying and uninstalling the offending download should be fairly straightforward.

    How to remove scareware from a PC

    1. Type control panel into your Windows search box, then select Control Panel from the results.

      How to locate the Control Panel via the Windows Start Menu in order to remove scareware.
    2. Under the Programs category, select Uninstall a program.

      How to locate the Programs section of the Windows Control Panel in order to remove scareware.

    3. Once you’ve located the scareware, click Uninstall and then OK if a confirmation box appears.

      How to get rid of scareware by uninstalling an app using Windows Control Panel.

    How to remove scareware from a Mac

    1. Locate the unwanted program in the Applications category of your Finder window. Click and drag it to the Trash, or right-click and select Move to Trash.

       How to remove scareware on Mac by clicking and dragging the app to Trash.
    2. Now empty the Trash to remove the software once and for all.

    Step 2: Enter Safe Mode with Networking

    Next, restart your computer in Safe Mode with Networking so that you can install malware tools without exposing your computer to further threats.

    Windows Safe Mode with Networking

    1. Restart the computer via the Power button in the Start menu, making sure you hold the Shift button as you click Restart.

    2. Once your computer restarts, select Troubleshoot on the advanced reboot options menu.

      How to open the Troubleshoot menu during Windows reboot in order to restart computer in safe mode with networking.
    3. Choose Advanced Options.

      How to open the Advanced Options menu during Windows reboot in order to restart computer in safe mode with networking.
    4. Go to Startup Settings.

      How to open the Startup Settings menu during Windows reboot in order to restart computer in safe mode with networking.
    5. Press F5 to select Safe Mode with Networking to boot into Safe Mode with internet access.

      How to select enable safe mode with networking during Windows reboot in order to remove scareware.

    Safe Mode for Mac

    Shut down your device as normal and wait 10 seconds. When you restart your Mac, immediately press and hold the Shift key until the log-in screen appears. You’ll now be in Safe Mode and can log in normally.

    Step 3: Install genuine antivirus software

    Once in Safe Mode, you can safely download legitimate malware removal tools to find and remove residual scareware files. On a mobile device, use dedicated malware removal software for Android, or an iPhone virus scanner.

    Install Avast Free Antivirus and run a full virus scan to clean out any other malware on your device. You can also schedule a boot-time scan to run when you restart your computer. This is a very deep scan that roots out the most hidden forms of malware lurking deep in your machine.

    After installing Avast Free Antivirus, you’ll benefit from real-time and round-the-clock smart analytics that can identify and remove even the latest viruses and other malware. You’ll also get multiple layers of enhanced security to block malware before it ever reaches your machine.

    How to prevent scareware

    Scareware uses social engineering tactics to manipulate users into compromising their own security. Staying informed and following these simple tips can help you spot scareware attacks before you fall for the ruse.

    • Never click on malware notifications. If you see a pop-up, banner, or window warning you that your computer is infected and prompting you to download a software solution, it’s almost certainly a scam. Do not click.

    • Keep your browser updated. This helps protect against scareware pop-ups in the first place. Enabling automatic updates ensures you’re always using the latest version of your browser. Better yet, use a secure and private browser for an extra shield against scareware and other online threats. Avast Secure Browser even blocks phishing attacks, harmful downloads, and helps prevent web tracking — all for free. 

    • Use the full range of network tools. Using ad blockers, URL filters, and firewalls helps to cut scareware off at source and stop fake malware warning pop-ups from ever reaching your screen.

    • Avoid accidental downloads. To get rid of scareware pop-ups, close the browser window itself, instead of clicking the “Close” or “X” buttons. On Windows, use Ctrl + Alt + Delete to open the Task Manager. There, find the program under the Applications tab and click End Task.

    • Always use genuine antivirus software. Using updated protection from a trusted security company is the best possible defense against scareware, because it will alert you to potential threats and swiftly quarantine and remove any malware that does make it onto your computer.

    Protect your device from scareware with Avast Free Antivirus

    Knowing what scareware is and how to avoid it helps guard against fraudsters who rely on manipulating unsuspecting victims with their scams. But nothing offers the same level of reliable protection as a comprehensive and cutting-edge antivirus app that defends against all the very latest threats.

    Avast Free Antivirus packs a powerful array of advanced protections to prevent any malicious software from slipping onto your machine. Using state-of-the-art machine-learning technology, Avast Free Antivirus proactively seeks out and blocks viruses, spyware, and ransomware before they can threaten your privacy and security.

    Hooked up to the world’s largest threat-detection network, you’ll rest easy knowing that the most trusted antivirus has your back 24/7.

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