What is Scareware and How to Recognize Scareware Scams

Last updated on May 3, 2021

So a pop-up appeared on your computer telling you your computer has been infected? No fears. That’s just a spammer hoping you will boost his commissions.

What is scareware? It is malicious software that tricks you into visiting malware-infected websites.

Scareware malware makes its operators rich. In 2019, one of these companies called Advanced System Repair (ASR) hauled in around fifty thousand a day! By the second half of 2008 alone, Scareware packages rose from 2,850 to 9,287, culminating in more than 15,000 scareware variations by 2021. It’s a racket you want to avoid.

What is scareware?

Scareware is exactly what its sounds. It’s malware that scares you into buying and downloading unnecessary and potentially dangerous software, such as fake antivirus protection.  Computer pop-ups blaze alerts like: Your computer has a virus! Do not shut off your computer, or you will risk losing your data!

The worst scareware products warn you’ll lose your  job, career, or marriage. None of this, they say, will happen to you if you buy their product that’s incidentally reduced. More recent scareware products add a number for customer support. Don’t fall for it!

Your computer is not infected. If it were it would be simply misbehaving – not shooting you these annoying alerts.

Rather, these tricksters want you to call, so they can scare you into buying their products and elicit your financial information.

Worse still, if you fall for them your computer ends up getting infected too.

More recently, scareware operators have upped their games by running pop-ups that disable your legitimate antivirus programs if you use their services, making your computers vulnerable to their spyware. Once this happens, they take over your computer, gaining access to your saved files or stealing even more personal and financial information.

The installed software might also slow your computer, preventing you from installing legitimate security software and bombarding your system with pop-up ads.

Other types of scareware

It’s the computer scareware category that’s the most notorious, but you can get phone variations too, with fraudsters calling warning your computer is spewing viruses, or that your personal data may have been compromised. The callers may claim to be from Microsoft, and they want you to pay via credit card to have them remote-control your computer and fix the problem.

In another variation, you may get an email with the sender claiming he’s recorded your visits to porn sites and other unsavory web locations, then threatens to make your recordings public until you pay up. You may laugh at this, but remember, 44 million Americans regularly visit porn sites. For them it’s no joke.

Behind the scenes

Scareware trickery is a multibillion enterprise usually running from India. The biggest ( is split into three companies, each raking in around $1.7M USD a month, with its customers coming from around the world, most from Japan.

Salespeople are trained to prey on fears, pointing out or exaggerating vulnerabilities when none exists.

When security researcher Jim Browning checked out EchoSoft in 2020, he was falsely told that his computer had security issues, that his updates failed, that his anti-virus programs stopped working, and that his personal information was exposed, among other dreaded issues. The salesperson thanked him for his understanding and recommended their cheapest option: a $499 premium support package for the year.

Had Browning fallen for that ploy, the EchoSoft scam ware would have corrupted his system, causing him to need technical support from a credible computer services company.

How do I detect scareware?

The giveaways are simple:

  • Exclamation marks and drama – Typical messages include ‘Warning! Spyware found!’ or ‘Warning! Your computer is infected!’ Credible companies steer clear from hysterics. These disreputable companies want your money.
  • Menacing pop-ups – They warn your computer is infected with hundreds of viruses or that it will crash within minutes. Naturally, they want to scare you into calling them.
  • The ad wants you to act fast – before you change your mind.
  • The bright colors – Attention-glaring yellows and reds. It’s your attention they’re after
  • Super fast virus scanning – In two minutes flat, alerts have whizzed through your updates, pronouncing they’ve found enough viruses to handicap your site. A genuine thorough investigation takes hours.
  • They refuse to close – If you try to exit, you’re on a loop unable to close the browser.
  • The home number – that’s a definite giveaway. Reputable companies, like Norton, never reveal their emails much less their phone numbers. They don’t want to be inundated with calls. They want you to figure out your own issue.

How do I remove these annoying alerts?

What if an ad pops up on your screen with dire warnings that your computer is infected? Never click to exit. Not only will it lead you on an endless loop, but some could infect your device with their scareware. Use Ctrl-Alt-Delete, Task Manager, or when all else fails, a hard shutdown of your computer to kill the bug.

How do I prevent scareware?

It only takes a few habits:

  • Regularly update your browser. Consider automatic updating to keep your browser and computer programs constantly updated.
  • Keep pop-up blockers turned on to prevent pop-up advertisements for rogue security programs.
  • Install a reliable antivirus program on your devices and instantly update when it expires. Buy the software from the company website or from a trusted retailer.
  • Beware which pages you visit. You can pick up drive-by scareware simply by visiting compromised websites
  • Never click on pop-ups. If you’re legitimately worried that your computer is infected, do a Google search on the company behind the pop-up you’ve received. Also note security products that appear in top Google search results are not necessarily legit. Hackers know how to trick search engines, too.


Scareware can be convincing and may even impersonate legitimate companies and website browsers that you trust. Unfortunately, they can be persuasive too. Just recently three rogue security apps hidden on Google Play were downloaded more than a million times. It’s a racket that you don’t want to fall for. Your best blocks? Update your reliable antivirus systems. Keep your pop-up blocker on. Steer clear from questionable sites and links. And when a rogue scareware does turn up, never click on its program to shut it – rather abort your computer system.