Dangers on the Internet: Scams and Malware

Beware of Scams

The aim of this article is to raise awareness to the large amount of scam software that is being distributed on the web and the danger that it poses. In particular, this author believes that Internet users should be more aware of common scams that are used to exploit people through the false promise of giving them something that they want.

Many such scams involve fictitious pieces of software, which the user is told they can access only after they have paid the scammer or made them money through another method, such as the completion of a survey or signing up for an affiliated service. In some cases, the scam stops here: the user just realises that they have been deceived as they find that the content they wanted doesn't exist. However, in other instances, the unsuspecting user is tricked into downloading a malicious file that can cause serious harm to their computer's security.

Identifying Scam Websites and Software

Just like in the real world, if you find something that is "too good to be true" then it probably is! It is almost certain that a website or piece of software is not legitimate if:

  • It claims to cheat an online website or game for you, such as Facebook or FarmVille.
  • It promises free access to a service or game that is not usually free, such as Minecraft.
  • It generates codes or points for free when usually they have to be purchased or earned, such as is the case with Microsoft Points or Runescape coins.
  • It requires the submission of sensitive details in order to work, such as a YouTube password.
  • The origin of a piece of software cannot be traced but it instead exists only on a user upload website.

Take no notice to any claims made on suspicious websites: testimonies from users, pictures of awards received* and promises that a downloadable file is "virus free" cannot be trusted. If people: say on YouTube, post in forums or write on unknown websites, that something on the Internet is "genuine", you should instinctively be very cautious of the claims. Scammers attempt to promote the legitimacy of their "products" in many ways, often disguised as real users.

* Read more about software awards scams here.

Don't Lose Your Money and Private Details

If, through a survey or other means, a website wishes for you to disclose more details than you are happy with (such as your mobile phone number or address) or for you to pay money, do not feel pressured into doing this! Scammers often use tactics to force you into rushing a decision, such as saying that an offer is "only valid for the next minute" or that "there is just one download left". These claims are likely completely false and are designed only to support the scam.

Make sure you do your research before handing over any of your money or private details to a website that you've not heard of before. For example, find respectable sites that endorse the website in question and see if you can find genuine, unbiased reviews of it.

The Dangers of Running Untrusted Software

Although a piece of software may appear to run as advertised, crash or simply not do anything, in reality, it is not possible (without specialised knowledge and programs) for you to know what the software actually did. If your computer is not adequately protected, in under a second the software may have covertly taken any number of malicious actions, such as: starting a keylogger, stealing your personal files, joining your computer to a botnet or installing adware. It may also start to download hundreds of other pieces of malware, which will make it very difficult for you to remove all of the threats without re-installing your machine's operating system.

If you suspect that your computer has already been infected by malware, you should turn the machine off and seek advice from your system's administrator. In general, most threats (not all!) can be eliminated by taking the following steps:

  1. Physically disconnect the machine from the Internet.
  2. Ensure that all of your important files have been backed up on an external storage device.
  3. Use another computer to download anti-virus software (there is lots of free and paid programs that you can find with a quick Internet search). Install the software on the infected machine and remove any threats that are found.
  4. Check to make sure all threats have been removed (you may need an expert to do this for you).
  5. If your machine is still infected, repeat from step 3 but with a different piece of anti-virus software.

Protecting Yourself From Scams and Malware

  • Be aware and make others aware of scams and the dangers of executing untrusted software.
  • Ensure your operating system is set to automatically update so that you're protected against the latest threats (if you're using Windows, turn on Automatic Updates via the Control Panel).
  • Keep all of the software you run on your computer (e.g. Java, Flash, Adobe) up-to-date as these updates patch vulnerabilities.
  • Install a firewall on your computer - the main advantage of a firewall is that if a malicious program does manage to run on your machine, it should be prevented from connecting to the Internet and downloading and running hundreds of other pieces malware, which could be much more dangerous. A firewall can also stop programs from accessing privileged resources, such as your operating system's settings.
  • Install anti-virus software on your computer, which will continually work to ensure that you stay secure.
  • Take care on the Internet and don't be too trusting - sadly the web is not a completely safe place!

Conclusion

There is a wealth of great quality, useful programs - popularly termed "apps" - available on the Internet. However, there are also many pieces of scam software circulating around, created by unscrupulous parties, which are designed to exploit you and your computer. It is important to be both aware of the existence of this type of Internet scam and also to the real danger posed by untrusted software.

As in the physical world, when using the Internet, you should always bear in mind the maxim: "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is". You should also not take everything you read online at face value: just because someone says that something will help you that does not mean that it's true. Always be cautious and remember the importance of installing an up-to-date firewall and anti-virus software.