What is Scareware?

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What is Scareware?

Scareware is a type of malware designed to trick users into downloading and installing harmful software onto their computers. Scareware typically tricks users into downloading harmful software by displaying a pop-up that suggests to the user that their computer has been infected with a virus and instructs them to download their suggested antivirus software to remove this threat. This proposed antivirus software is in reality a fake antivirus software, and by clicking the pop-up, the user will inadvertently download the malicious software they were trying to avoid in the first place. This social engineering scam is a major cybercrime. It allows scammers to steal sensitive information, gain access to organizations’ IT infrastructure, and perpetrate identity theft. Unfortunately, scareware attacks are on the rise and now we’re seeing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) get involved to limit these cybercrime attacks and protect internet security. 

What Happens if You Are a Victim of Scareware?

Scareware acts as the entry point for ransomware, malware, and other malicious vectors to access a user’s computer and then gain access into an organization. Once compromised, cybercriminals can gain access to an internal network and wreak havoc by encrypting sensitive data for ransom, stealing credit card information, or accessing sensitive documents. Once the threat is detected, organizations need to take swift action to remove any accounts of malicious software that have proliferated.

How to Remove Scareware

If a user has clicked on a scareware pop-up, they should immediately run an antivirus scan by a  legitimate antivirus vendor. Legitimate antivirus software can enhance an organization’s cybersecurity posture and prevent the scareware’s executable from installing malicious software on the computer user’s system or proliferating dangerous software within an organization.  Legitimate antivirus programs can be installed at the operating system level and set to run on a schedule to look for malicious software consistently. 

Why Organizations Should Protect Against Scareware

Leaders of organizations should take extreme caution around the protection strategy to target and limit scareware attacks and attacks from other rogue security software. When a scareware scam successfully tricks an employee into downloading malicious software, it creates a vulnerability point within that given organization. This vulnerability point can act as a backdoor into the given organization and provide cybercriminals easy entry into the organization’s entire environment. Once breached, cybercriminals can target sensitive intellectual property that can be sold on the dark web, held for ransom, or threaten to take down an organization’s IT infrastructure completely.

How to Prevent Scareware

Preventing scareware attacks can be accomplished by enhancing existing security policies and providing proper employee education to know what to do in the event of an attack.

Security Audit

Organizations can enhance their existing security measures to be more resilient to scareware attacks by working with an outside consultant to perform a security audit. Third-party security auditors can provide critical information to help organizations better understand their level of vulnerability to scareware and other external threats. These auditors can also provide guidance in enhancing existing security policies and procedures to make organizations more resilient to future attacks.

Security Measures

Based on the feedback of third-party security audits or internal audits, you may need to take additional security measures such as implementing pop-up blockers, installing new PC & Mac antivirus solutions, and taking other additional measures to protect your organization. Aside from implementing legitimate antivirus, antimalware, and antispyware security software, organizations can also enable Windows Defender to limit attacks on employee Microsoft workstations.

Employee Education Measures

One of the most important steps an organization can take to limit the repercussions of scareware attacks is to educate its employees. Proper employee education can make all the difference in whether an employee falls victim to the scareware trick or notifies tech support of the potential threat. Organizations should consider continual internal training sessions to renew the educational material around scareware policy.

What Questions Should Organizations Be Asking About Scareware? 

  1. What steps have we taken as an organization to limit the susceptibility to scareware attacks?
  2. Do we run consistent antivirus scans to target and remove scareware programs?
  3. What steps have we taken to train our staff on scareware policy?
  4. How frequently are we providing educational material to our staff that discusses scareware signs and the steps to take should they encounter scareware? 
  5. Do we have an internal protocol to follow in the event of a scareware attack?
  6. What software and network solutions do we have in place to protect our environment in the event of a successful scareware attack?

Different Ways Scareware Gain Access Into an Organization

Cybercriminals employ several different scareware tactics to trick users into downloading malicious software. Although there are new unique ways scareware is being used against individuals and organizations, there are three primary strategies every organization should be aware of.

Phishing Attack

One primary tactic cybercriminals use to get users to download malicious software is to present scareware tactics through a phishing email. The email will try to scare users into thinking they have already downloaded some malicious software and request the user to take steps to remove the malicious software. Although dangerous, these phishing emails can be caught easily with effective email monitoring that sends this type of suspicious request to the spam folder.

Web Page Pop-Up

Another common strategy cybercriminals use to trick users into falling victim to a scareware attack is through web page pop-up ads. Cybercriminals will use unscrupulous websites to present pop-ups intended to deceive the visitor that they have been infected with a virus simply by visiting that website. Here users may quickly fall victim to a scareware attack when they try and download whatever offer the pop-up ads is presenting to remove the virus from their computer.

Software Install

Lastly, users may unintentionally install browser extensions or other software applications without knowing that scareware is packaged inside the software they just installed. Often, scareware will remain dormant for some time after the initial install so that when it does prompt the user to take action, they may have forgotten where they could have originally downloaded this dormant malicious software. This is another tactic where users will quickly take the bait and download the underlying malicious software when caught off-guard.

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