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According to Internet security experts, online criminals are grabbing millions of pounds by convincing computer users to download fake antivirus programs (scareware).
Symantec claims that more than 40 million users have been victims of this hoax in the last 12 months. The download is harmful and can sometimes be used by criminals to get hold of the victim's credit card details.
The security company has identified 250 versions of scareware, and it is believed that criminals could earn more than 750,000 pounds a year.
The sellers of these rogue antiviruses open warning windows (pop-ups) that are thoughtfully designed to appear legitimate; for example, using the same fonts as Microsoft and other well-known software vendors.
The windows usually appear when the user is switching from one website to another and warn that the security of the computer has been compromised; something that is not true.
If the user clicks on the message, he is immediately directed to another site from which he can download the fake antivirus program that he supposedly needs to disinfect his computer for a price of up to 60 pounds.
As Symantec's Con Mallon pointed out to the BBC, this apparent solution could have two effects on victims. "Obviously, it is obvious that we are losing our money, but also, in the background, if we carry out an online transaction with these subjects we are providing them with details of our credit or debit card and other personal information," he added.
"Clearly, the information is very valuable, as cybercriminals may try to access these accounts themselves or sell the information to others who will try to take advantage of it."
The results are part of a report prepared by Symantec after analyzing data collected between July 2008 and June 2009. According to Symantec, 43 million people were deceived during this period. In fact, it has become so popular that it has become a franchise.
According to Mallon, some rogue antivirus took the deception even further. They could hijack our computer, make it stop working, lock some of our information, photos or Word documents with passwords and demand a ransom. The scam is difficult for the police or other government agencies to investigate, since the sums of money are very small. So experts advise users to protect themselves using common sense and legitimate security software.
Tony Neate of Get Safe Online told the BBC that internet threats have changed in recent years. Before it was enough to protect our computer; now we have to protect ourselves from scammers out there who are tricking us to help them infect our computer. Once infected, it can no longer be our computer, since we can completely lose control over it.
Before, the threats used to be 16-year-olds who, from the rooms of their houses, caused damage with viruses; now the kids have grown up and are looking for money and information.
Source: BBC Technology