It’s Not a Tiger: Responding To Scareware

Imagine a scene. You are sitting at your computer when suddenly a voice starts shouting at you that you are going to lose all your files or the FBI has detected suspicious activity. What happens next? Because you are human, the next part of the story is inevitable. Your heart rate elevates, your blood pressure […]

Imagine a scene. You are sitting at your computer when suddenly a voice starts shouting at you that you are going to lose all your files or the FBI has detected suspicious activity. What happens next? Because you are human, the next part of the story is inevitable. Your heart rate elevates, your blood pressure rises and adrenaline starts pouring into your system. None of these do you any good, however, and it is all the tiger’s fault.

Back when our ancestors were still carrying clubs, when a bush rustled those who had these autonomic reactions were prepared for fight or flight and could more effectively run away. Even if nine times out of ten the rustle was a bird or the wind, given enough encounters those who did not have these reactions would eventually get eaten by the tiger. So our ancestors, the ones who lived, have bred this reaction into us.

But there is no tiger and sitting in front of a computer is not a physically dangerous situation. The programmers who created scareware are counting on your fear to get you to make bad decisions. In most cases, the message screaming from your computer is nothing but that. If the programmer had actually infected your computer with a virus, why tell you? Better to hang around in the background and steal all your data. Fear makes end users do foolish things, though, and I have dealt with the aftermath of scammers being given credit card information or allowed access. Here is the part of the story that we can control. Take a deep breath. Remember that there is no tiger and call a technical support person you trust or just turn your computer off. I can predict that your odds are good that the computer will be fine after you turn it back on, and I can flat out guarantee that you are not going to be eaten.

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