What Is Scareware? How It Works and How To Stop It

As a cybersecurity professional with over a decade securing cloud data, I’ve seen many types of malicious software come and go. But one insidious threat has only continued to evolve – scareware. In this comprehensive guide, I’ll use my experience battling scareware to breakdown exactly how it works, real-world examples, and most importantly, actionable tips to prevent infections.

A Veteran Security Expert’s Overview of Scareware

Scareware, sometimes called rogueware, is a form of malware that feeds on fear. It uses deceptive and manipulative tactics to trick users into believing their devices are severely infected. Scareware then urges targets to take immediate action to remove the non-existent threats.

Most commonly, scareware pretends to be legitimate antivirus software. Criminals push out fake virus scans and dire warnings that look convincingly real. Their ultimate goal is to get targets so panicked about viruses that they readily purchase dodgy security software or hand over personal information.

Of course, the software peddled by these criminals is useless at best or actual malware at worst. As a cloud security expert, I‘ve seem scareware evolve from clumsy fake pop-ups into sophisticated malware over the years. Attackers have nearly perfected social engineering and technical skills to distribute hyper-realistic scareware.

Although veteran security professionals can spot signs of scareware, even we occasionally get momentarily duped by an exceptionally polished attack. When scareware is well-executed, it triggers such a strong emotional response that logic goes out the window.

This ability to override human rationality is what makes scareware such an intractable threat. In the rest of this guide, I’ll breakdown exactly how modern scareware works and provide pro tips to avoid becoming the next victim.

Social Engineering is Scareware‘s Secret Weapon

The key ingredient that gives scareware its potency is social engineering. As a security expert, social engineering is one of the top threats I watch out for. That’s because it exploits normal human psychological tendencies in clever ways.

Social engineering refers to the practice of psychologically manipulating people into taking harmful actions or divulging confidential data. Instead of using technical hacking skills, social engineering relies on persuasion, deception, and craftily triggering emotional responses.

Scareware notifications are intentionally designed to generate feelings of panic. Pop-up messages will make jarring claims like “Your computer is badly damaged!” or “You have hundreds of infected files!”

The threatening language triggers our natural fight-or-flight response and makes us crave urgent protection from the supposed viruses infecting our devices. Our ability to think critically is essentially hijacked by overwhelming feelings of fear.

Additionally, scareware masquerades as trustworthy security software companies. The logos, names, and branding are painstakingly copied from major antivirus products to add legitimacy. Even I’ve been temporarily fooled by remarkably authentic graphics used by some scareware.

By combining strong scare tactics with impersonation, scareware can trick even savvy users into downloading malware or handing over sensitive data. In my professional opinion, the social engineering aspect is the most impressive and dangerous part of modern scareware campaigns.

How Scareware Spreads to New Devices

Scareware developers utilize a variety of strategies to distribute their infected files and fake antivirus ads, including:


Malvertising refers to legitimate websites inadvertently running malicious ads due to vulnerable ad networks. These ads redirect to scareware landing pages, tech support scams, phishing sites, and other threats.

I frequently find malvertising to be one of the most common infection vectors in corporate security breaches. Even well-known sites like NYTimes.com and YouTube have unknowingly hosted scareware ads in the past due to insecure ad partners.

Social Media Scams

Another distribution tactic involves posting links on social networks claiming users have won prizes or been selected for job opportunities. The links point to fraudulent sites instructing targets to download software for further information.

A recent scareware campaign on TikTok drew in 4 million views and 350,000 clicks. Social media provides efficient, low-cost distribution at massive scale to scareware operators.

Search Engine Poisoning

Unscrupulous developers will manipulate search engine algorithms so their malicious sites rank higher in results. They specifically target searches for things like “antivirus software”, “ malicious activity on my computer” and related security terms.

I frequently notice questionable antivirus programs ranking near the top for common security searches during my research. This makes it easy for unsuspecting users to accidentally download scareware or other malware.

Email Phishing

Phishing remains one of the most prolific methods for distributing scareware. Criminals send emails pretending to be from security firms claiming dangerous activity was detected on devices.

The messages urge urgent action via opening links or downloads to remove infections. Email phishing allows scareware companies to target thousands of businesses and individuals at rapid scale.

Software Bundling

One distribution method I find particularly underhanded is bundling scareware installs with free media downloads, cracks, mods, and “keygen” software. The scareware payload covertly installs in the background while the user is activating the free content.

Software bundling on sketchy sites is an easy way for criminals to circulate scareware widely under the radar. I advise avoiding pirated media and illegal software entirely to minimize risk.

Once successfully installed on a device, scareware burrows deep into the operating system making manual removal challenging for average users. The malware is specifically engineered to resist detection and deletion without the right tools.

Real-World Examples of Scareware Campaigns

To help identify scareware scams, let’s look at two big examples from recent years that snared numerous victims:

MacKeeper Scareware Snags Apple Users

For years until 2017, a program called MacKeeper targeted Apple users with brazen scareware pop-ups. Full screen alerts would suddenly appear warning your system had dangerous security problems.

The ads pressured Mac owners to download MacKeeper to scan for non-existent viruses. At one point, MacKeeper became so ubiquitous, many users assumed it was a legitimate Apple security product.

In reality, there were multiple class action lawsuits brought against Zeobit, the company behind MacKeeper, for deceptive ads and fraudulent claims. The “antivirus” contained excessive tracking and useless system scans designed to upsell users for recurring fees.

This case perfectly illustrates how far scareware companies will go to pose as authentic security products. MacKeeper even successfully fooled legions of Apple fans for years by mimicking first-party tools.

Fake Browser Updates Trick Users

In 2021, Microsoft publicly warned about scareware attacks targeting Chrome and Edge users. Fake notifications popped up claiming critical browser updates were available and urged users to download malicious versions of Chrome or Edge.

Once installed, the infected browsers could steal passwords, financial information, and any other data entered by victims. I analyzed one of these fake updates in my lab and found it included keylogging abilities and privacy-invading tracking.

This wave of attacks really highlights how criminals capitalize on our habit of keeping software updated. Even seasoned users can be tricked by extremely convincing browser update alerts. Social engineering strikes again!

6 Red Flags to Recognize Scareware Attacks

While scareware can seem legitimate at first glance, upon closer inspection there are usually red flags indicating it’s fake. Here are 6 common signs that a security alert is likely scam scareware:

1. Appears as Disruptive Pop-Up Ads

Genuine antivirus programs don’t send crucial alerts through sketchy pop-up ads the way scareware does. If an alarming notification randomly pops up while browsing claiming your system is in danger, it’s almost certainly fake.

2. Names Are Intentionally Similar

Scareware vendors often pick names that closely resemble major brands, but are slightly altered. For example, they may use VirusSheild instead of VirusShield to sow confusion. Be wary of copycat names.

3. Logos Look Altered

Logos on scam ads frequently appear slightly distorted, blurry or low resolution because they were stolen from legitimate antivirus companies. If a logo seems off, it’s a red flag.

4. Language Is Threatening and Aggressive

Genuine IT companies avoid using threatening language that sparks fear. Scareware deliberately uses alarming language like “Your files have been corrupted!” Real tech pros stay calm.

5. Immediately Prompts a System Scan

Pop-ups urging you to download software to scan your system are highly suspect. This is usually a ploy to load malware and illegal software onto your device under the guise of an antivirus.

6. Poor Spelling and Grammar

Sloppy typos and grammatical mistakes are quite common in scam ads, often because they originate from overseas cybercrime groups. Legitimate brands put more effort into polished messaging.

I recommend studying these red flags closely so you can quickly identify fake antivirus scareware in the wild and avoid becoming a victim. If an alert seems suspicious, close it immediately and manually navigate to the company’s official website to double check for new updates.

What To Do If Scareware Infects Your Device

If you suspect your device has fallen prey to an especially devious scareware attack, try to remain calm and take these steps to definitively remove it:

Completely Shut Down The Browser

If you’re getting a relentless bombardment of scareware pop-ups, completely power down the web browser instead of simply closing the tabs or windows. In my experience, some stubborn scareware loops endlessly even when tabs are closed.

Run a Scan with Legitimate Antivirus

Download and run a deep scan using a trustworthy antivirus solution like Norton, McAfee, or Malwarebytes. This should detect and safely quarantine any potential scareware infections. Make sure to update antivirus signatures first for optimal results.

Verify Default Apps Haven’t Changed

Open system settings and confirm none of your default web browsers, search engines, or other programs were switched without your knowledge. Scareware has been known to modify defaults to help proliferate.

Manually Uninstall Strange Unknown Programs

For scareware that manages to evade antivirus detection, manually removing unfamiliar recently installed programs from your application menu can sometimes eliminate it.

Fully Reset Your Browser

As a last resort if scareware persists, completely uninstalling all browsers on your device, restarting, and freshly reinstalling the apps can wipe out those hard-to-remove infections. Make sure to backup any bookmarks first!

With a combination of antivirus scans, malware removal tools, and system resets, you should be able to fully purge scareware from an infected device. But cultivating strong prevention habits is vastly preferable to dealing with infections.

8 Proactive Ways Security Pros Avoid Scareware

As a cybersecurity expert, I swear by these proactive measures for avoiding scareware and other malware headaches before they even start:

1. Never Click Pop-Up Ads or Alerts

Make it a rule to never ever download software, enter info, or even click on pop-up ads, especially ones claiming you have a virus. Simply close the browser entirely if a suspicious ad appears.

2. Verify Emails Before Downloading

Never open email attachments or links without first confirming the sender is legitimate by calling them. Even emails that appear to be from companies you know could be spoofed.

3. Only Install Software from Reputable Sites

Sticking to downloading programs directly from well-known, trustworthy developers helps avoid bundled scareware installs. I advise against using torrents and cracks entirely.

4. Use an Ad Blocking Browser Extension

Adding a browser extension like uBlock Origin helps proactively filter out malvertisements and stops many scareware pop-ups before they even appear. This is essential.

5. Enable Browser Pop-Up Blockers

All major browsers have built-in settings to block pop-ups which can provide an important extra layer of protection against unwanted scareware ads slipping through.

6. Avoid “Free” Software Bundles

Even as a cybersecurity pro, I’m amazed at how much malware is covertly bundled into free games, media files, and “cracked” apps. Avoid iffy downloads entirely, even if you have to pay.

7. Update Software Religiously

Maintaining the absolute latest software versions closes security holes that criminals leverage to distribute scareware before they can be exploited. I automate updates on all devices.

8. Use Comprehensive Premium Antivirus

Investing in a robust security suite with leading antivirus and anti-malware protection goes a long way toward locking out infections before they occur. Proactive defense is ideal.

Common Scareware FAQs Answered

Let’s explore some frequently asked questions about dealing with scareware:

Q: How do I remove a persistent scareware pop-up?

A: Shut down the web browser fully using your computer‘s task manager. Run a scan with trusted antivirus software, then reset the browser to factory defaults to remove all traces.

Q: Is MacKeeper a legitimate optimization software?

A: No, MacKeeper is rogue scareware. Multiple class action lawsuits have been filed against the company Zeobit, which developed MacKeeper.

Q: Can scareware monitor and steal sensitive personal information?

A: Yes, some advanced types of scareware include keylogging and data harvesting capabilities that can steal info like passwords and credit cards. Running reputable antivirus is crucial.

Final Thoughts on Defeating Scareware

As an information security veteran, I’ve seen firsthand how convincingly fear-based social engineering tactics can mimic authentic messages. But through education and proper precautions, we can avoid becoming victims.

The most effective approach is cultivating consistent software updating habits, using reputable malware protection, thinking twice before clicking links or downloads, and being wary of hyperbolic threats. With proactive critical thinking, we can protect devices from frustrating scareware attacks.

I hope this insider’s guide has provided you with actionable insights on recognizing these persistent scams and keeping your data safe. Feel free to reach out if you have any other cybersecurity questions!

Luis Masters

Written by Luis Masters

Luis Masters is a highly skilled expert in cybersecurity and data security. He possesses extensive experience and profound knowledge of the latest trends and technologies in these rapidly evolving fields. Masters is particularly renowned for his ability to develop robust security strategies and innovative solutions to protect against sophisticated cyber threats.

His expertise extends to areas such as risk management, network security, and the implementation of effective data protection measures. As a sought-after speaker and author, Masters regularly contributes valuable insights into the evolving landscape of digital security. His work plays a crucial role in helping organizations navigate the complex world of online threats and data privacy.