How to Spot and Avoid Fake Virus & Malware Warnings

Joel Lee 22-01-2016

Malware has long been a nuisance Viruses, Spyware, Malware, etc. Explained: Understanding Online Threats When you start to think about all the things that could go wrong when browsing the Internet, the web starts to look like a pretty scary place. Read More for computer users, and it doesn’t seem like that will change any time soon. Infections can happen in the most unpredictable ways, which is why anti-virus and anti-malware programs The 5 Best Free Internet Security Software for Windows Need antivirus, anti-malware, and real-time security? Here are the best free internet security software for Windows. Read More are so important — but they aren’t enough.


As you use your computer and browse the Web, you may occasionally run into infection warnings that appear to be legitimate but aren’t. These anti-malware warning messages — appropriately called “scareware” — are designed to scare you into installing fake anti-malware programs that are actually malware in disguise.

So how can you tell between real and fake warning messages? It can be tough, but as long as you stay calm and take your time 10 Steps To Take When You Discover Malware On Your Computer We would like to think that the Internet is a safe place to spend our time (cough), but we all know there are risks around every corner. Email, social media, malicious websites that have worked... Read More , there are a few signs you can look for that will help you distinguish between the two.

3 Most Common Fake Alert Types

While fake virus warnings could theoretically crop up in any manner, history has shown that there are three main types that are exploited over and over. For the most part, if you can learn to spot these, that should be more than good enough.

1. Website Advertisements

Advertisements used to be straightforward and easily distinguished, but advertisers are smart and ever-adapting. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to tell between genuine content vs. advertising Do You Know What Native Advertising Looks Like? Native advertising is all around us on the web. It's a controversial practice but is it the future? Do you know how to spot these sneaky ads before they distract your browsing? Read More , and when you apply that to the context of malware, the idea is terrifying.



Malware-laden advertisements aren’t new — they’re common enough to have their own name, “malvertisements” Meet Kyle And Stan, A New Malvertising Nightmare Read More — but they can be scary. When browsing a webpage, you might see flashing ads that claim to know your IP address, where you live, and the fact that you have thousands of infections on your system.

The only solution is to ignore these. No self-respecting anti-malware company would ever report their alerts through a website ad, nor can a company know what kind of infections are on your system simply by you visiting a webpage.

2. Browser Popups

Banner ads are admittedly easy to notice and avoid, but there’s another form of advertisement that’s way more convincing:



These popups often copy the actual appearances of warnings from real anti-malware software. What’s worse is that these popups often disguise their “X” buttons, so that if you do click on the fake “X” (to close the popup) it counts as if you clicked the ad itself.

You can usually tell that a popup is fake because it will be over-the-top in its scariness. It will tell you that you must “act immediately” in order to prevent the breakdown of your computer or the loss of your data. Really, though, the urgency is only there because they want you to act without thinking.

3. System Tray Notifications

A rarer but more serious form of scareware appears in the system tray as a notification, usually telling you that there’s a massive infection in your system that needs to be resolved pronto. Unfortunately, these can be pretty convincing.



Windows 8 and 10 both use toast notifications instead of balloon notifications, but they’re still vulnerable to fake messages so stay alert. (You can revert to balloons if you want 5 Windows 10 Registry Tweaks to Improve & Unlock Features The registry editor is the only way to enable some of Windows 10's hidden features. Here we'll show you easy tweaks like enabling the dark theme or hiding folders. Read More .) Notifications can also be faked by full screen videos or browsers in full screen mode.

Ultimately, the warning signs of a fake popup apply here as well. Look for over-the-top scariness and a sense of urgency that makes you want to act immediately. That’s a good sign that the warning isn’t real.

What to Do If You Suspect a Fake Alert

If you ever encounter one of the alert types mentioned above, don’t worry. It’s not the end of the world. Here’s a simple checklist of what you should do to make sure you circumnavigate the alert safely.

Calm down and take a breath. The worst thing you can do is to act hastily and accidentally do something that you’ll come to regret. It’s okay to take it slow and take your time. Avoid clicking at all until you know what’s going on.


Make sure it’s really fake. Common giveaways that a warning is actually fake include product names that seem fake (“XP Antivirus”, “AdwarePunisher”), features and promises that are vague (“protect your privacy”, “remove harmful files”), a high frequency of alerts (more than once per day), and poor English.


But the biggest giveaway is that the alert wants you to purchase a new security product, upgrade a security product that you don’t actually have, or directly send money somewhere (as in the case of ransomware Don't Pay Up - How To Beat Ransomware! Just imagine if someone showed up on your doorstep and said, "Hey, there's mice in your house that you didn't know about. Give us $100 and we'll get rid of them." This is the Ransomware... Read More ). Reputable security companies will never do any of these things.

Search for the product name. If you don’t recognize the product name, search for it. If it’s legitimate, it will rank somewhere on the first page of results. If you can’t find any mention of it, or if there are a lot of other people asking about the legitimacy of the same product name, then it’s probably fake.

Close your browser. If the alert popped up while you were browsing the Web, don’t click on the “X” to close it. Instead, close your browser altogether (either through the Task Manager or by right-clicking on your browser in the taskbar). If the alert closes with the browser, then it was a fake.


Scan your system. Spotting a fake malware warning doesn’t necessarily mean that your system has malware on it, but those fake warnings could be caused by malware, in which case you’ll want to get rid of it sooner rather than later. This is even more important if you aren’t doing regular malware scans already.

We recommend starting with one of these one-time scanning tools Make Sure You're Clean With These Free One-Time Scan Antivirus Tools [Windows] It sucks to be constantly bombarded by computer-related threats, whether they’re spyware, malware, viruses, keyloggers, or whatever else. A popular way to combat this problem is to install an antivirus solution that sits in the... Read More to purge your system of any infections, then using one of these Windows security suites The 5 Best Free Internet Security Software for Windows Need antivirus, anti-malware, and real-time security? Here are the best free internet security software for Windows. Read More for real-time, always-on protection. If you find malware that just won’t go away, check out our complete malware removal guide The Complete Malware Removal Guide Malware is everywhere these days, and eradicating malware from your system is a lengthy process, requiring guidance. If you think your computer is infected, this is the guide you need. Read More .

Scareware Is Only the Tip of It All

Knowing how to spot and identify fake malware warnings is a good skill to have, especially if you want to start building good online security habits Change Your Bad Habits & Your Data Will Be More Secure Read More . Unfortunately, scareware is only one of many concerns out there, so we also recommend learning these email security tips 7 Important Email Security Tips You Should Know About Internet security is a topic that we all know to be important, but it often sits way back in the recesses of our minds, fooling ourselves into believing that "it won’t happen to me". Whether... Read More and following in the footsteps of security experts 8 Tips for Online Safety Used by Security Experts Want to stay safe online? Then forget everything you think you know about passwords, antivirus and online security because it's time to be retrained. Here's what the experts actually do. Read More .

Have you ever fallen for scareware? What happened as a result? Are there any other scareware-identifying tips that we overlooked? Let us know in the comments below!

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  1. Risha Bhattacharyya
    October 17, 2018 at 11:46 pm

    Haha, a year ago I got a pop-up saying my computer would shut off if I ignored the message. I called the number but thank GOD it was a discontinued number. I researched it afterwards and now I know how dumb I am ?

  2. SMN5507
    December 6, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    My Facebook account is currently being held captive by a "Linux malware" warning. I'm afraid to click the OK button, cos it might do more damage!

  3. Trinity Sanders
    October 1, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    I was browsing google and got a virus warning, I installed the "Antivirus" app indicated and my phone started downloading tons of random files and many home screen ads and I couldn't even use my touchscreen. Luckily, my power button worked so I restarted my phone and uninstalled the app, the problem was resolved.

  4. Tim
    August 18, 2016 at 11:13 pm

    Thanks for the info like have repeatedly posted my opinion on the ones that I could find. Asking if they know the definition of the term to coerce.

    • Joel Lee
      August 19, 2016 at 8:37 pm

      Thanks Tim!

  5. Coyle
    July 19, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    When I see the fake virus pop up, I always press back and continue with my activities. Is that enough?

  6. Sonic
    January 22, 2016 at 9:48 pm

    close the browser. Try closing the tab first ;) Also, add blocker helps alot!

    • Anonymous
      January 24, 2016 at 7:15 pm

      Ad blockers (not "add," "ad" is short for "advertisement," which has one "D"!) help, but JavaScript security like NoScript is a lifesaver. It prevents scripts from unknown sources - such as malware sites - from running in the browser, and allows you to vet (decide on) which source sites get to run JavaScript on a page.

      • Sonic
        January 24, 2016 at 11:49 pm

        Yeah i know, it was a typo ;)

  7. Anonymous
    January 22, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    If you run your A/V and anti-malware scanners regularly the chances are that any warnings are bogus.
    Any warnings from software you do not have installed are bogus, no matter how scary.
    If you are worried about the warnings being true, dismiss the warning and scan your computer using your installed software.

    In the past couple of years I have received malware warnings and alerts several times. Considering that for the past 7 years I have been running Linux exclusively, any warning/alert that my Windows PC is "severely infected" gives me a good laugh.

    • Anonymous
      January 24, 2016 at 1:23 am

      In your case, it's quite true. Your Windows PC is severely infected with the Linux Virus, which may make it impossible to use Windows ever again :-)

      • Anonymous
        January 24, 2016 at 1:47 pm

        I am just devastated! No more Windows. Boo Hoo Hoo! :'(