it’s bad enough dealing with real viruses, worms, and other malware on your computer. Now scammers are charging to remove threats that aren’t even there.
The Federal Trade Commission recently announced settlements with two operations that it accused of tricking people into believing their computers had viruses and then charging up to $429 to fix the imaginary infections. The outfits called people or used Google paid search to lure them to websites that claimed an association with reputable antivirus software makers such as McAfee and Symantec and computer titans such as Dell and Microsoft.
But there are other ways you can be bamboozled. Some websites launch pop-up windows saying that your computer is infected and offering to scan it or remove the virus—for a fee. Even more insidious are sites that stealthily install antivirus software that mimics the real thing, creating fake scan results that show widespread infection. The bogus programs often have authentic-sounding names. (We’ve seen System Care Antivirus and Antivirus Agent Pro.)
Such "ransomware" can disable many of your machine's functions or hide programs and data files, making it seem as though they've been deleted. Then it notifies you that it can repair the problems—again, for a fee.
Get more tips and advice in our guide to Internet security.
What you can do
- Make sure you have a current, legitimate antivirus program installed. Check out our security software Ratings before you buy. (That still may not protect you completely: A staffer had his PC infected twice in the past year while online, though he has up-to-date antivirus software.)
- Back up personal files often to minimize the amount of information you'll lose if you have to erase your hard drive.
- If you receive phone calls or e-mails warning that your computer may be infected, ignore them, no matter how legitimate they seem. And never click on any link in an unsolicited e-mail from a stranger.
- If your computer becomes infected with a rogue antivirus program, don’t pay anything, no matter how frustrating the symptoms. Instead, disconnect the computer from the Internet so that the software can’t steal personal information. Then note the name of the fake software (visible in the pop-up box) and other details. Using a separate computer, search for info on how to remove it. There’s lots of advice on websites such as Badwarebusters.org and on the sites of legit antivirus software makers.
- Some tech sites offer free utilities, including the RKill application from BleepingComputer.com, that temporarily disable ransomware so that you can remove it using legitimate antivirus software, such as Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free. You should be able to download the utilities to a USB thumb drive and run them on the affected computer.
- If those fixes seem overwhelming, ask a computer-savvy friend for help or obtain professional tech support.
For more news and articles, subscribe to our electronics feed.
This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.