2009-08-21 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Commentary By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

AUDREY PHEFFER AUDREY PHEFFER If you are a regular Internet user, you know to be wary of suspicious websites and downloads that could contain viruses and spyware. But what about pop-up windows or website advertisements informing you that a virus or spyware program has infected your computer, or directing you to update your anti-virus software or run a "free security scan"? If your computer displays a pop-up window or you see an advertisement like this while browsing the Internet there is no need to be afraid, even though you have been targeted by a new form of online fraud designed to do just that; scare you into paying for anti-viral software that you may not need, or is ineffective.

A particularly insidious example of this scam - commonly known as scareware scams - involves a program that directs infected computers to open the disc drive and display an urgent message informing the user that if the computer's disc drive is open, there is a malicious program installed on the computer. Of course, this warning is accompanied by a convenient link to a website where you can purchase anti-viral software that is guaranteed to fix the problem. Scareware attacks have increased dramatically in recent months. According to a report published by Microsoft, in the second half of 2008, scareware infections rose nearly 50 percent compared to the previous six month period, with approximately eight million computers affected.

Most scareware programs display messages that mimic the look of official security warnings generated by your computer's operating system. In many scareware attacks, scammers hope the fear generated by the warning will encourage users to purchase the anti-viral software offered immediately without thinking about whether the software is actually needed or if the enterprise offering the software is legitimate.

Your operating system will never warn you of a problem and then prompt you to download a program for a fee in this manner. In addition to being used as a deceptive means to sell anti-viral software, scareware is also employed to sell bogus software that provides little, if any, protection, or trick computer users into downloading malicious programs.

If you receive a pop-up message that you believe is part of a scareware scam, shut down your Internet browser. Do not click on any links contained in the message or attempt to close the window by clicking on the "X" or "close" portion, as some scareware is designed to activate when the user clicks on any portion of the window containing the message. Microsoft Windows users can shut down a browser without clicking on it, by opening the Task Manager and clicking "End Task." Macintosh users may perform this function by pressing Command + Option + Q + Esc to "Force Quit." After you have shut down your browser, it is a good idea to manually run your antivirus software, anti-spyware software, and any other protection software you may have to locate and remove any scareware installed on your computer.

For more information on scareware, you may visit the Federal Trade Commission's website on the issue at: http://www.ftc gov/bcp/edu/ pubs/consumer/alerts/alt121.shtm.

For more information on protecting your computer from malicious software, consider visiting the federal government's comprehensive Inter net safety website at: http:// www. onguardonline.gov/.

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