Scareware Fraud

All Trick and No Treat? Part One

By Robert E. Holtfreter, Ph.D., CFE, CICA;Tiffany McLeod

 It’s better to be safe than sorry, the saying goes. But sometimes the promise of safety lures unsuspecting victims into more danger. Certified Fraud Examiners need to know about scareware, the latest evolution in the malware market. 




Sarah Jinn is an intelligent, young professional who, like most of us, uses computers daily at work and at home. She is proficient with the Internet and is well aware of common Web-based scams such as phishing and spam schemes. However, recently Sarah received a warning notice while browsing the Internet that her computer was infected with a dangerous virus. The notice included a suggestion that she download a free trial version of a new software security suite to remove the virus. She did so, but the suite didn’t fix the problem. Instead, Sarah discovered the trial version of the security suite couldn’t remove the virus until she bought the full version.


In the meantime, she started getting bombarded with online advertisements and security warning pop-up windows informing her that her computer’s data wasn’t secure. Moreover, several of her favorite software programs stopped running correctly. Frustrated, Sarah decided to pay the $40 subscription fee to get a full version of the security suite. Unfortunately, her computer continued to malfunction, even with the full version installed.


This is the beginning of a typical scareware scam. While Sarah’s case is fictional, it is based on the experiences of real victims, including family members of one of the coauthors of this article. In addition to gaining access to the victim’s credit card information during the security suite purchase, scareware hackers also can gain access to a victim’s personal files and habits once the program is installed on the targeted computer. The scammers then can steal identities, transfer money from bank accounts, make fraudulent charges on credit cards and much more. In worst-case scenarios, scareware scams can have devastating repercussions for years to come.

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