Scareware is a form of malware which uses social engineering to cause shock, anxiety, or the perception of a threat in order to manipulate users into buying unwanted software.[1] Scareware is part of a class of malicious software that includes rogue security software, ransomware and other scam software that tricks users into believing their computer is infected with a virus, then suggests that they download and pay for fake antivirus software to remove it.[2] Usually the virus is fictional and the software is non-functional or malware itself.[3] According to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, the number of scareware packages in circulation rose from 2,850 to 9,287 in the second half of 2008.[4] In the first half of 2009, the APWG identified a 585% increase in scareware programs.[5]

The "scareware" label can also apply to any application or virus which pranks users with intent to cause anxiety or panic.

Scam scareware

Internet security writers use the term "scareware" to describe software products that produce frivolous and alarming warnings or threat notices, most typically for fictitious or useless commercial firewall and registry cleaner software. This class of program tries to increase its perceived value by bombarding the user with constant warning messages that do not increase its effectiveness in any way. Software is packaged with a look and feel that mimics legitimate security software in order to deceive consumers.[6]

Some websites display pop-up advertisement windows or banners with text such as: "Your computer may be infected with harmful spyware programs.[7] Immediate removal may be required. To scan, click 'Yes' below." These websites can go as far as saying that a user's job, career, or marriage would be at risk. Products with advertisements such as these are often considered scareware. Serious scareware applications qualify as rogue software.

Some scareware is not affiliated with any other installed programs. A user can encounter a pop-up on a website indicating that their PC is infected.[8] In some scenarios, it is possible to become infected with scareware even if the user attempts to cancel the notification. These popups are specially designed to look like they come from the user's operating system when they are actually a webpage.

A 2010 study by Google found 11,000 domains hosting fake anti-virus software, accounting for 50% of all malware delivered via internet advertising.[9]

Starting on March 29, 2011, more than 1.5 million web sites around the world have been infected by the LizaMoon SQL injection attack spread by scareware.[10][11]

Research by Google discovered that scareware was using some of its servers to check for internet connectivity. The data suggested that up to a million machines were infected with scareware.[12] The company has placed a warning in the search results for users whose computers appear to be infected.

Another example of scareware is Smart Fortress. This site scares the victim into thinking they have many viruses on their computer and asks them to buy a professional service.[13]


Dialog from SpySheriff, designed to scare users into installing the rogue software

Some forms of spyware also qualify as scareware because they change the user's desktop background, install icons in the computer's notification area (under Microsoft Windows), and claiming that some kind of spyware has infected the user's computer and that the scareware application will help to remove the infection. In some cases, scareware trojans have replaced the desktop of the victim with large, yellow text reading "Warning! You have spyware!" or a box containing similar text, and have even forced the screensaver to change to "bugs" crawling across the screen.[14] Winwebsec is the term usually used to address the malware that attacks the users of Windows operating system and produces fake claims similar to that of genuine anti-malware software.[15]

SpySheriff exemplifies spyware and scareware: it purports to remove spyware, but is actually a piece of spyware itself, often accompanying SmitFraud infections.[16] Other antispyware scareware may be promoted using a phishing scam.

Uninstallation of security software

Another approach is to trick users into uninstalling legitimate antivirus software, such as Microsoft Security Essentials, or disabling their firewall.[17] Since antivirus programs typically include protection against being tampered with or disabled by other software, scareware may use social engineering to convince the user to disable programs which would otherwise prevent the malware from working.

Legal action

In 2005, Microsoft and Washington state successfully sued Secure Computer (makers of Spyware Cleaner) for $1 million over charges of using scareware pop-ups.[18] Washington's attorney general has also brought lawsuits against Securelink Networks,,[19] High Falls Media, and the makers of Quick Shield.[20]

In October 2008, Microsoft and the Washington attorney general filed a lawsuit against two Texas firms, Branch Software and Alpha Red, producers of the Registry Cleaner XP scareware.[21] The lawsuit alleges that the company sent incessant pop-ups resembling system warnings to consumers' personal computers stating "CRITICAL ERROR MESSAGE! - REGISTRY DAMAGED AND CORRUPTED", before instructing users to visit a web site to download Registry Cleaner XP at a cost of $39.95.

On December 2, 2008, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission ("FTC") filed a Complaint in federal court against Innovative Marketing, Inc., ByteHosting Internet Services, LLC, as well as individuals Sam Jain, Daniel Sundin, James Reno, Marc D’Souza, and Kristy Ross. The Complaint also listed Maurice D’Souza as a Relief Defendant, alleged that he held proceeds of wrongful conduct but not accusing him of violating any law. The FTC alleged that the other Defendants violated the FTC Act by deceptively marketing software, including WinFixer, WinAntivirus, DriveCleaner, ErrorSafe, and XP Antivirus. According to the complaint, the Defendants falsely represented that scans of a consumer's computer showed that it had been compromised or infected and then offered to sell software to fix the alleged problems.[22][23][24]

Prank software

Another type of scareware involves software designed to literally scare the user through the use of unanticipated shocking images, sounds or video.


A novel approach to individually detect various scareware families uses a small set of network attributes determined by a recursive feature elimination process based on information gain. This work specifically analyzes scareware families separately, and results highlight the importance of attributes such as the number of bytes exchanged, packet size, time between flows, and flow duration for scareware attack classification. Three classifiers—Decision Tree, Naïve Bayes, and OneR—are employed, with the Decision Tree classifier achieving the highest average classification accuracy (79.5%) using a minimum of 44 attributes.[27]

Recent research has also introduced a new detection technology designed to identify scareware social engineering attacks with enhanced resilience. This approach targets the visual images presented to end users, which is a layer that attackers cannot easily obscure.[28]

See also


  1. ^ "What is Malware? | IBM". Retrieved 2023-12-06.
  2. ^ "Millions tricked by 'scareware'". BBC News. 2009-10-19. Retrieved 2009-10-20.
  3. ^ 'Scareware' scams trick searchers. BBC News (2009-03-23). Retrieved on 2009-03-23.
  4. ^ "Scareware scammers adopt cold call tactics". The Register. 2009-04-10. Retrieved 2009-04-12.
  5. ^ Phishing Activity Trends Report: 1st Half 2009
  6. ^ John Leydon (2009-10-20). "Scareware Mr Bigs enjoy 'low risk' crime bonanza". The Register. Retrieved 2009-10-21.
  7. ^ Carine Febre (2014-10-20). "Fake Warning Example". Carine Febre. Retrieved 2014-11-21.
  8. ^ JM Hipolito (2009-06-04). "Air France Flight 447 Search Results Lead to Rogue Antivirus". Trend Micro. Retrieved 2009-06-06.
  9. ^ Moheeb Abu Rajab and Luca Ballard (2010-04-13). "The Nocebo Effect on the Web: An Analysis of Fake Anti-Virus Distribution" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-11-18. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. ^ "Mass 'scareware' attack hits 1.5M websites, still spreading". On Deadline. April 1, 2011.
  11. ^ "Malicious Web attack hits a million site addresses". April 1, 2011. Archived from the original on November 11, 2014. Retrieved July 1, 2017.
  12. ^ "Google to Warn PC Virus Victims via Search Site". BBC News. 2011-07-21. Retrieved 2011-07-22.
  13. ^ "Smart Fortress 2012". Kaspersky Lab Technical Support. February 29, 2012. Archived from the original on 2017-01-28.
  14. ^ "bugs on the screen". Microsoft TechNet.[permanent dead link]
  15. ^ Vincentas (11 July 2013). "Scareware in". Spyware Loop. Archived from the original on 8 November 2014. Retrieved 27 July 2013.
  16. ^ filed under "Brave Sentry."
  17. ^
  18. ^ Etengoff, Aharon (2008-09-29). "Washington and Microsoft target spammers". The Inquirer. Archived from the original on 2008-10-02. Retrieved 2008-10-04.
  19. ^ "Attorney General's Office Sues, Settles with Washington-based | Washington State". Retrieved 2021-12-21.
  20. ^ Tarun (2008-09-29). "Microsoft to sue scareware security vendors". Lunarsoft. Retrieved 2009-09-24. [...] the Washington attorney general (AG) [...] has also brought lawsuits against companies such as Securelink Networks and High Falls Media, and the makers of a product called QuickShield, all of whom were accused of marketing their products using deceptive techniques such as fake alert messages.
  21. ^ "Fighting the scourge of scareware". BBC News. 2008-10-01. Retrieved 2008-10-02.
  22. ^ "Win software". Federal Trade Commission.
  23. ^ "Wanted by the FBI - SHAILESHKUMAR P. JAIN". FBI.
  24. ^ "D'Souza Final Order" (PDF). Federal Trade Commission.
  25. ^ Contents of disk #448. - see DISK 448.
  26. ^ Dark Drive Prank
  27. ^ Bagui, Sikha; Brock, Hunter (2022-01-01). "Machine Learning for Android Scareware Detection". Journal of Information Technology Research (JITR). 15 (1): 1–15. doi:10.4018/JITR.298326. ISSN 1938-7857.
  28. ^ "Robust scareware image detection". Retrieved 2024-02-09.

Further reading