Most people think that their computers at work are quite safe. There’s almost always some sort of firewall on the network (with half of its workload being devoted to blocking your co-worker from being on FaceBook all day). Everyone typically sees an anti-virus program quietly waiting in the notification bar and works on a browser trafficking the same humdrum places as the fifty million others boxed in by four-and-a-half foot high walls.

Then your screen starts looking something like this:

Wondering exactly what went wrong? To be honest with you, nothing. Even the most techno-savvy individuals will eventually run into one of these cyberware “fishing hooks.” The most important thing to remember is to stay calm. In the end, these warnings are just a nuisance if they can’t goad you into doing something stupid.

These warnings are known as scareware, and they are surprisingly simple scams. They focus on loudly telling people their computers have been hacked or infected. Then, of course, the scareware offers to sell the computer users a “cure.” Often, the scareware will appear as an upgrade for the anti-virus or security program already on a person’s computer. It’s like someone broke your front window, climbed in and tried to hard sell you on buying a security system from him. Subtle as a brick, but surprisingly effective.

Your response is simple. Put your keyboard down. An infected computer is no good, so don’t bother trying to shut down the fake software or run your anti-virus program or even Google the name. Go to another computer or grab a phone and get someone with the tools to scrub the thing from your system. Don’t touch it again until you’re instructed by the professional to do so.

Now if you want to minimize your chances of being snagged in the first place, it’s important to have some idea of how it happens in the first place. There are two main sources for these types of infections: drive-by-downloads and malware-ladened spam.

The drive-by-download  is an invisible webpage element. They are either hacked onto existing pages or built as fake pages with some way or another of diverting traffic to them. These downloads try to exploit some bug or forgotten vulnerability of your browser to copy and run a small program on your machine that then installs the scareware program.

The malware -ladened spam usually takes the form of a form or document that is attached to a legitimate looking email claming to be a receipt or report or bank statement or whatever they think you’ll open without looking at too hard. This scam works by exploiting bugs in document viewer or player.

Oddly enough, most of these bug are well-known and can be fixed. But most people’s computers aren’t constantly up-to-date with all their security software. Here are some ways you can keep your computer safe:

Don’t use Internet Explorer if you don’t have to. Regrettably, sometimes you have to. There are some websites or apps that require IE to run properly. I can’t, as a web developer, say that there’s been any love lost for this particular product. But on the merits of security alone there are reasons enough. Here are the highlights:

  • Closed source – This ones a little counter-intuitive. You would think that the less people know about the inner workings of a browser, the harder it would be to compromise. But, in practice, the less transparency there is, the more often cracks form and the longer it takes to fix.
  • ActiveX – Powerful, useful but regrettably added to IE in a less than security conscious way.
  • Vbscript – A proprietary equivalent to JavaScript, along with its own share of holes.

Keep your Adobe products updated. The shear ubiquity of Acrobat and Flash makes them a prime target for scareware, though Adobe makes an admirable effort to stay ahead of. The problem has always been getting all of us users to keep the program up-to-date.

If you use Java, keep it fresh. The precision of the exact numbers is a little questionable, but more than half of computer uses have Java installed. There are all sorts of web bits built with Java, including file upload/downloaders, chat systems, screen and webcam streaming. It’s a problem that is easy to forget about.

Keeping the above tips in mind will help save you from the headaches that can come from scareware. However, if your computer does get infected, it’s important to stay calm and look for help from companies or individuals that are experienced in removing these types of malicious programs.

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