As if the Internet wasn't enough of an obstacle course anyway -- what with popup windows, spam, and online scams -- there's always another kind of malicious software to worry about. The latest and not-so-greatest of these is called “scareware,” named for how it gets your attention by scaring the daylights out of you.


Have you ever been surfing the Web, when all of a sudden you get a notice saying you've got viruses on your computer? These are not always your friendly antivirus program trying to alert you to a problem. Scammers can create popup windows that look like regular Windows alerts, but are actually malicious ads. If it doesn't look like your normal antivirus program, beware! And we'll go over some things to look for, even if it does.


First, it helps to understand what these scam artists are trying to accomplish. Whereas the viruses we're used to are usually designed with your simple annoyance and frustration in mind, scareware is generally geared toward financial gain. The fictional “warnings” you see are intended to scare you into purchasing their software, which will either do nothing for you, or actually create new system problems. In some cases, you can end up with malware that hijacks your computer until you pay for their software (aptly referred to as “ransomware”). Recognizing these as potentially harmful ads, and not offers to “fix” your computer, is key -- and avoiding them completely is your best bet.


How can you tell if virus alerts are legitimate or malicious? It can be tough, but first make sure you have your own antivirus software and familiarize yourself with how it works. Know its name, logo, and color scheme so you can spot anything out of the ordinary. Learn to recognize when and where this program's notices appear on your screen, and when it suggests that you run a scan. The better you know your software, the better you can spot a fake.


If you're browsing online and find yourself with a window that claims you have a virus, “critical issue,” or other system problem, make sure you recognize the program name. Reputable antivirus software is installed and maintained on your system, and won't suddenly appear out of a random Web page. Try to check where this notice is coming from. If it's an Internet Explorer or Firefox window (or whatever your Web browsing software may be), that means it sprouted out of a Web page. Legitimate software programs will have their own distinct windows, which will show up separately on your taskbar. Real Windows warnings won't show up in a browser window -- if you receive a supposed system warning that does, treat it with skepticism.


You may get to the point where you know what you're looking at is an ad for illegitimate antivirus software, but the only option you have is “OK” (or “Cancel”). Don't be fooled: Usually, you can hit the “X” button in the upper right corner of this window to close it. Most of the time those “OK” buttons aren't real, anyway - they're just ad images made to look like a standard Windows alert. In fact, that's frequently how scammers trick you into clicking on their ads. It's not always a popup window, but sometimes a normally-placed advertisement that happens to look like a Windows alert.

You are not necessarily bound to come across this kind of thing in your everyday Internet travels. If you're not online frequently and only visit reputable Web sites, you run a pretty low risk of ever being confronted by one of these false virus warnings. Scareware, and malware in general, usually lurks on the lesser-known sites. While you may think you're always in the safe zones, you'd be surprised where you end up when you start “Googling” things. Don't trust all of your search results as legitimate sites! Just like you can't believe everything you read on the Internet, you can't trust every Web site to be safe.


As time goes on, scammers get craftier. While you're much more likely to encounter malware on sites about pirated software, pornography, or how to build bombs in your garage, you should still take everyday sites with a grain of salt until you know they're trustworthy.


Finally, if it's too late for any of these tips, be careful of how you go about fixing the problem. There are a plethora of different software sites out there that claim to uninstall your malware, but these can be just as sketchy as the original scam. If you're unsure where to turn, make sure you have (and keep updated) a reputable antivirus program like Norton or McAfee. It may even be worth your while (and cash) to hire a professional, considering how much more damage you could do by installing more questionable software.


Christi Coffman is a marketing assistant with Coast Central Credit Union, specializing in Web design. She is a member of the Redwood Technology Consortium --