“Free” security scans could cost you time, money, and a whole lot more

By | March 25, 2011
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No doubt you’re already too well aware that on your travels around the Web you’re bound to be besieged by messages telling you to install and update security software for your computer. And, you might be tempted by a “free security scan,” especially when this program or that has detected “malicious software” on your computer. But, much to everyone’s concern, that particularly scary message is most often (but not always) the first step in a very well planned consumer ( that means YOU) rip-off.

These free scans will always find a bevy of problems, and seconds later you’re bombarded with urgent pop-ups and messages to buy this or that security software. After you agree to spend $20, $30, $40 or more on the software, the program tells you that your problems are fixed. But the reality is harsh: there probably was nothing to fix. Worse, the program you bought during the onslaught of urgent distress message is now installed on your computer – and it is not only useless and expensive, it could be very harmful.

The following is from the FTC’s excellent consumer fraud Web site:

“According to attorneys at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, scammers have found ways to create realistic but phony “security alerts.” Though the “alerts” look like they’re being generated by your computer, they actually are created by a con artist and sent through your Internet browser.

These programs are called “scareware” because they exploit a person’s fear of online viruses and security threats. The scam has many variations, but there are some telltale signs. For example:

* you may get ads that promise to “delete viruses or spyware,” “protect privacy,” “improve computer function,” “remove harmful files,” or “clean your registry;”
* you may get “alerts” about “malicious software” or “illegal por/n/ography on your computer;”
* you may be invited to download free software for a security scan or to improve your system;
* you could get pop-ups that claim your security software is out-of-date and your computer is in immediate danger;
* you may suddenly encounter an unfamiliar website that claims to have performed a security scan and prompts you to download new software.

Scareware purveyors also go to great lengths to make their product and service look legitimate. For example, if you buy the software, you may get an email receipt with a customer service phone number. If you call, you’re likely to be connected to someone, but that alone does not mean the company is legitimate. Regardless, remember that these are well-organized and profitable schemes designed to rip people off.

How Do the Scammers Do It?

Scareware schemes can be quite sophisticated. The scam artists buy ad space on trusted, popular websites. Even though the ads look legitimate and harmless to the website’s operator, they actually redirect unsuspecting visitors to a fraudulent website that performs a bogus security scan. The site then causes a barrage of urgent pop-up messages that pressure users into downloading worthless software….”

What can you do?

If you’re faced with any of the warning signs of a scareware scam or you suspect a problem, shut down your browser immediately. DO NOT click “NO” or “Cancel” or the “X” in the top-right corner of your browser. Most scareware trickery knows that you’ll try to close your browser in the middle of their pop-up and warning frenzy. So, ‘NO”, “CANCEL” and even the “X” in the top-right corner will activate the download.

So how can you safely shut down your browser in the middle of one of these scareware routines? You can press the ALT plus F4 keys in sequence – that will close the window in focus (the window on top). If there are underlying windows, you can keep pressing ALT + F4 until all the windows are closed. Or you can right-click on your task bar and choose “Task Manager” (or press Ctrl + Alt + Delete) click on Processes and highlight Internet Explorer or Firefox (or whatever browser you use) and right-click and choose “End Process Tree”. This forces all instances of the browser to shut down immediately.

How do you know if a security program is legitimate or a scareware scam? You have the world at your fingertips – literally. Type in the name of the software program in Google (or your favorite search engine) and read the results. Most scams will show up as scams and legitimate programs will show up as legitimate. It only takes a few minutes of your time and it can save you hours of grief and hard earned money.

Check that your security software is active and current: at a minimum, your computer should have anti-virus and two anti-spyware software programs. Windows XP and Windows Vista users should make sure that the Windows firewall is enabled.

If you have a new computer, remember that the security software that came installed on your computer (normally -and unfortunately- Norton or McAfee) when you bought is Trial Software and it will work for only a short time — unless you pay a subscription fee to keep it working. Trouble is, that many times these programs will simply stop updating after your subscription expires, even though the program still starts with Windows and appears to be working. Therefore, many people are using very outdated security software and don’t realize they are not protected. Others know it is expired and not updating, but figure that something is better then nothing at all. Not so! Neither Norton nor McAfee offer any protection for your computer after your subscription expires.

If you bought a computer recently and you’re still using the security software that came with your computer, now is a good time to get rid of it and get something that works and that won’t cost you an arm and a leg every year or go ahead and pay McAfee or Norton’s annual ransom. But, either way, do not continue using out-dated security software or you’ll not be protected at all.

We strongly recommend if you have McAfee or Norton you dump whichever you have and get the programs we recommend instead (AVAST, Spyware Doctor, SuperAntiSpyware). And leave your Windows Firewall turned on. If you’ve had Norton, McAfee, Zone Alarm or any other program which includes or which is a third-party firewall, you might find that your Windows Firewall has been disabled. If so, you can turn it back on by clicking Control Panel, Security Center, and making sure your Windows Firewall is enabled.

Don’t click on links within pop-ups generated by products you don’t recognize. Don’t click links in emails that come from unknown senders. Use care when opening your email. Don’t fall for the “A friend sent you a Christmas Greeting”, “Birthday Greeting”, or similar E-card scam. Don’t visit sites known for questionable content, like adult sites, warez sites (pirated software), or sites that promise to pay you for surfing…you get the idea- you know what questionable sites are – right?

If you think you’ve been scammed or defrauded, report it to by going to www.ftc.gov or calling 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357) . Be prepared to give details about the purchase — including what website you were visiting when you were redirected. Any information you can give is helpful to investigators. The FTC enters consumer complaints into the Consumer Sentinel Network, a secure online database and investigative tool used by hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. If you would like more information about the FTC’s program to stop online scams and schemes designed to defraud consumers , visit www.OnGuardOnline.gov. It’s an excellent site with lots of good information on how you can protect yourself, your identity and your money.

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