What is Scareware?

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  • Written By: R. Kayne
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 19 September 2019
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Scareware refers to bogus sales tactics designed to scare a user into thinking his or her computer contains critical errors or viruses that must be fixed immediately. For a price, scareware ads offer an instant solution in the form of downloadable software. In some cases this software is harmless, in other cases the software meant to fix non-existent errors is actually spyware or some form of malware itself, victimizing consumers twice.

A scareware ad might pop-up at any time when cruising the Web. The ad can resemble a Microsoft window or it might trigger an actual window, leading people to believe the message is being generated by their own operating system. The pop-up warns the user that the computer is compromised in one or more ways and requires a fix. The warning might cite viruses or system errors such as registry errors. Clicking an “OK” button will take the user to the download site to buy the “fix.”


Regular scanning with legitimate software is part of routine computer maintenance. Registry scanners will look for orphaned pointers, missing values, uninstalled leftovers and other bits of incorrect data that can slow performance. Many websites employ online scanners that will comb a visitor’s registry looking for problems. Registry problems can be found in nearly every scan, and most errors don’t amount to much more than housekeeping. Websites dedicated to selling scareware use online scanners that will report nonexistent problems presenting them as extremely critical, urging the victim to buy software to avoid certain disaster.

Microsoft™ Corp. has little tolerance for scareware tactics that reflect poorly on its operating systems (OSs), making them appear more vulnerable than they actually are. In 2005, Microsoft joined forces with the state of Washington to sue Secure Computer for Spyware Cleaner, scareware that falsely reported the presence of spyware. The suit cost Secure Computer one million US dollars to settle. In September 2008, the software giant joined forces with Washington once again to name several alleged scareware companies in a similar scareware suit.

To avoid being targeted by scareware companies, employ a pop-up blocker configured to block third-party sites. If using XP SP1, upgrade to SP2 or disable Windows Messenger (versus Windows Live messenger), as this can be an entry point for malicious scripts. If you want to use an online scanner, look for recommendations from reputable sources like PCWorld or Tom’s Hardware. Better yet, download a reliable scanner and use it from your hard drive. If you practice good maintenance habits and have the usual guardian programs running, you have little reason to fear infections or errors.

If a pop-up does occur, it should be generated from one of your installed programs. Firewalls, anti-virus programs, anti-spyware and registry cleaners all utilize warning pop-up windows that include the program’s name to identify which software program is alerting. If the pop-up is a true Windows system alert, it will likely only warn that a program must close or that some unexpected function occurred. These are informative pop-ups rather than ‘curative.’ Windows automatic update, if enabled, might recommend the user download a patch or upgrade, but the patch should be from Microsoft, free of charge.


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