What is Fake Antivirus? How It Works?

What is Fake Antivirus Software? The Ultimate Guide to Understanding and Protecting Against This Dangerous Threat

Fake antivirus software, also known as rogue security software or scareware, is a type of malicious program that pretends to be legitimate anti-malware software but actually does harm to your computer. Instead of protecting you from viruses and other threats, phony antivirus apps aim to trick you into giving up your personal info, steal your money, and sneak in other malware infections.

According to a study by ESET, a leading antivirus provider, over 4.9 million people worldwide were attacked by fake antivirus software between January and August 2022 alone. The FBI‘s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reported that scareware and fake antivirus schemes cost consumers over $4.2 million in 2021.

Threat actors take advantage of people‘s fear of malware and desire to protect their computers by using manipulation, scare tactics and social engineering to get them to install bogus security tools. Let‘s take a deeper look into how this threat works, how to spot the fakes, remove them from your system, and prevent future infections.

The Mechanics of Fake Antivirus: How It Infects and Spreads

Fake antivirus programs use many of the same infection vectors as other types of malware, including:

  • Spam emails with malicious attachments that install the rogue software
  • Tech support scam popups from compromised or malicious websites
  • Search engine ads and results that lead to sites pushing fake AV
  • Unauthorized freeware or shareware downloads bundled with malicious payloads
  • Exploits that take advantage of security holes in outdated software

Once on your system, fake antivirus software may use rootkit techniques to embed itself deep within your operating system, making removal difficult. It often disables real security measures like Windows Defender, giving it free reign.

A defining trait of rogue antivirus compared to other malware is a heavy use of social engineering – psychological tactics used to trick people. Common techniques include:

  • Alarmist messages warning that your device is infected with hundreds of nonexistent viruses and at extreme risk
  • Urging you to act immediately to clean your PC or risk data/identity theft
  • Offers of free system scans that always find fabricated threats
  • Realistic but fake interfaces and virus lists that look like real AV software
  • High-pressure sales tactics pushing expensive upgrades and support plans
  • False endorsements, like "Microsoft Gold Certified Partner" to build misplaced trust

Here‘s a real-world example of a fake Norton AntiVirus popup:

[Insert image of a realistic but fake Norton antivirus popup/alert]

The combination of scare tactics and a seemingly-official look and feel make these scams effective. One survey by the University of Cambridge found that 37% of respondents were fooled by an image of a fake Microsoft Update window, with many saying they would likely click the "Install" button.

The Goals and Dangers of Fake Antivirus

So what do the scammers behind fake antivirus programs want? In most cases, it boils down to two main goals:

  1. Financial gain through fraudulent purchases
  2. Access to your PC to steal data, install more malware and use system resources

Rogue security apps often claim you must pay for a "full" version or subscription to clean supposed malware infections. If you do enter payment details, not only will you be charged for a useless product, but the criminals also steal your credit card number for fraud, identity theft, and selling on the dark web.

Symantec found the average cost of these scams is $200-$500 per victim. A report by the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) estimated global losses from fake antivirus at over $400 million per year.

Even if you don‘t pay, fake AV still poses serious risks:

  • Stealing login credentials to your email, bank, social media and other sensitive accounts
  • Logging your keystrokes to capture passwords and personal data
  • Secretly installing ransomware that locks your files and demands payment
  • Adding your PC to a botnet for attacks on others or cryptocurrency mining
  • Sabotaging system performance, causing crashes, freezes and data loss
  • Creating security holes for other malware to slip through

In a famous case, a fake antivirus program called "Internet Security 2011" infected over 1 million PCs worldwide. It used fear tactics to push $80 software, stole data with a keylogger, and installed the Zeus banking Trojan to empty victims‘ bank accounts, causing $150 million in losses.

How to Identify a Fake Antivirus Infection

Fake AV is getting more sophisticated, but there are still red flags that can tip you off to an infection:

  1. Sudden, unfamiliar antivirus pop-ups and alerts start appearing
  2. Full screen messages claim your device is infected and at risk
  3. Virus scans run automatically without your permission and always find threats
  4. Alerts name specific virus files but provide few details
  5. Messages create a sense of urgency, pushing you to act immediately
  6. System performance drops; programs run slowly or crash entirely
  7. Web browser is hijacked and locks you out of security settings
  8. Other odd issues like taskbar icons missing and the inability to open certain apps

Here are a couple real-world examples of what fake antivirus alerts look like:

[Insert side-by-side images of a real and fake antivirus alert for comparison]

Note how the fake alert uses a generic "System Security" name rather than a well-known brand, has typos, and uses an alarmist tone – all tell-tale signs. Of course, you can‘t solely rely on appearance, as some fakes closely mimic real software. If you are seeing suspicious alerts, avoid clicking anything and run a scan with real antivirus software.

How to Remove Fake Antivirus Software

If you suspect you‘ve fallen victim to a phony antivirus program, quick action is important to prevent further damage. Follow these steps to remove the infection:

  1. Disconnect from the internet to prevent malware from spreading or stealing more data
  2. Restart Windows in Safe Mode to stop fake AV at startup
  3. Open your task manager (Ctrl+Shift+Esc) and end any suspicious processes
  4. Uninstall the rogue program through the control panel if possible
  5. Run a full system scan with real, trusted antivirus software and quarantine any threats found
  6. Clear your browser cache, cookies and extensions to remove any lingering scripts
  7. Reset all account passwords, especially banking, email, and others entered while infected

If fake antivirus blocks you from opening real security tools or makes removal too difficult, try using a rescue disk. A rescue disk is a bootable CD or USB drive with portable antivirus scanners that can clean infections from outside of Windows.

In extreme cases, fake antivirus may be so entrenched in your system that removal tools don‘t work. If malware remains even after multiple attempted removals, or if ransomware has encrypted your files, you may need to reinstall Windows and restore from a backup. Of course, prevention is the best cure.

Protecting Against Fake Antivirus Infections

You can greatly reduce the risk of fake antivirus by layering different cybersecurity protections:

  • Use reputable antivirus software from well-known providers like Kaspersky, Bitdefender, Norton, McAfee, etc. and keep it updated
  • Enable the built-in Windows Firewall or use a third-party firewall
  • Keep your operating system and other software updated and patched against vulnerabilities
  • Be cautious about opening email attachments or clicking links from unverified senders
  • Only download software from developer websites or trusted app stores – avoid pirated and cracked software
  • Back up your system and important data regularly so you can recover from attacks

Research shows these safeguards are highly effective. A study by the University of Florida found that enabling antivirus and anti-malware protection reduces the risk of attack by 87%. Another report by Microsoft concluded that keeping software updated blocks 96% of critical vulnerabilities.

Fake antivirus software is a serious threat, but with awareness and proper defenses you can avoid becoming a victim. Always be skeptical of unsolicited tech support offers and virus alerts, and if you do get infected, use this guide to clean your system safely. Stay safe out there!

[Insert relevant infographic summarizing key statistics and tips from the article]