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    Scareware a growing security concern for computers using Windows operating system

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Business in Vancouver October 13-19, 2009; issue #1042

    High Tech Office column

    Last week’s column noted the need to keep Windows, applications and the host of add-ins (Flash, QuickTime and more) up to date and recommended software- inspecting tools from to help stay patched.

    Here’s another trend in malware 2009: scareware. You’ve probably seen the come-ons – visit a website – often a well-respected one – and a window pops up stating that a virus or spyware has been found on your computer or that there’s a problem with your Windows registry. A fix for the infection or problem is just a click away.

    If you go there, you’ll find what seems to be information about security software, often with quotes from reviews by reputable publications and tables comparing this software with other better-known competitors. Brand names include Doctor Antivirus, Spyware Preventer and Total Virus Protection. USA Today suggests there are more than 9,000 varieties of such programs, though many are the same software appearing with different names.

    Thirty or 40 dollars later you’ve downloaded the software and it reports that your problem has been solved.
    Congratulations. You’ve just been tricked into installing scareware. You’re not alone. Microsoft claims its Malicious Software Removal Tool (run as part of Windows Update) has cleaned more than 4.4 million systems infected with just one scareware program.

    Best-case scenario: your newly installed software does nothing except pop up false messages. Hopefully, despite thinking you’re protected (you’re not), you won’t pick up other infestations. (Once installed, some scareware blocks legitimate security programs.)
    Potential worse scenarios: some scareware includes “key-loggers” – software that watches everything you type on your computer, sending credit-card numbers and other financial and personal information to who knows where. Still other scareware has been reported to encrypt user documents, making them inaccessible, then offering to unencrypt them upon payment of “ransom.”

    While you’re more at risk hanging out on the wrong side of the information superhighway, this year, the New York Times, Newsweek and FoxNews were all embarrassed by reports that ads appearing on their websites offered users scareware. Like other major websites, they had contracts with online ad- placement services, which apparently are not screening ads well enough.
    Social-networking sites, including Twitter and Facebook, have been used to serve up scareware come-ons. Recently, people searching for news stories on the death of Patrick Swayze got pop-ups urging them to download “Total Security” – software that steals personal information, according to (real) security company McAfee’s Avert Labs.

    You can keep scareware off your computers, though. Reputable and up-to-date security software will generally warn you if you download and try to install a bogus security package. (Not sure if your installed software is legit? Remember, Google is your friend – search for reviews from trustworthy sources.) And you can generally see through the faux-security software’s websites if you’re careful.

    Scareware web pages filled with reviewers’ quotes never link to the original reviews. That’s because the original reviews don’t exist. A quick Google search for the “brand name” of the false product will almost always reveal that it’s a scam.
    But don’t bother.

    Along with installing legitimate security products and keeping them up to date, the best strategy is to recognize that all messages (other than from your installed security software) that pop up and claim that your computer is infected or has problems or offer a free scan for problems are bogus. Don’t click to continue – don’t even try to close the pop-up. Shut down your browser. If it won’t shut down easily, press Control-Alt-Delete and use the Windows Task Manager to end the task. Note that to date, only Windows systems are vulnerable to scareware, even though the same “you’re infected” messages will pop up on Macs or Linux systems. Non-Windows users are allowed to chuckle at warnings that their Windows registries are corrupted or at pop-ups appearing to scan their non-existent My Documents folders.

    If you don’t think your home computer has an adequate level of protection from viruses, spyware and assorted malware, the just-released – and free – Microsoft Security Essentials: ( is worth a try. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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