How to deal with Scareware on your Mac

Scareware is one of the nastiest forms of malware there is because it plays on users’ fears. It usually intimidates users that their computer could become infected or their data stolen. Not only the scareware daunts the users, but it also manipulates them into paying for something that, at best, they don’t need. In this article, we’ll show you what to look out for to avoid scareware and how to deal with it when you come across it.

What is scareware?

It is anything that appears on your Mac that claims you have downloaded a virus or that your computer or data are in some way compromised. Some forms attempt to persuade you to pay for software to remove the supposed virus, while others try to manipulate you into calling a ‘tech support’ phone number. Of course, that number is a premium rate phone number that results in you paying lots of money to those behind the scam. Ransomware is also a form of scareware since it exploits the fear that your private data has been stolen and tries to make you pay a ransom to recover it.

Scareware may trick you into believing:

  • Your Mac is infected with malware.
  • Photos have been taken from your webcam without you realizing it.
  • Your Mac has some technical fault that you need to fix immediately.
  • Important software is out of date and needs to be updated.

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How to avoid scareware

The fact that scareware comes in different forms, from pop-up ads to bundled software, means that there is no straightforward way to avoid it. However, you can use the same rules that you would follow to avoid any malware.

  • Don’t click on a link in an email, message, or website unless you are sure where it will take you.
  • Avoid websites that your browser flags as potentially harmful.
  • Don’t download free software from sites that use their own download manager.
  • Never click on a scareware pop-up or an alert that Flash Player or any other piece of software is out of date and needs to be upgraded.
  • Keep your web browser updated. Web browsers are the first line of protection, but that only works if you keep yours updated.
  • Use a pop-up blocker. Lots of scareware takes the form of pop-up windows.

If you do see a message telling you that you’ve downloaded a virus or otherwise been compromised, ignore it unless it comes from an anti-malware tool you have installed. If you don’t use anti-malware software, ignore all warnings that your computer has been infected by malware.

Scareware examples and how to spot the scams

There are a number of signs that a warning you see on screen is scareware. Here are some of them.

  • A pop-up advert is especially dramatic – scareware vendors want to induce as much fear as possible, so they make their adverts as menacing as possible with lots of dramatic graphics and words.
  • Pop-ups are difficult to close – this one applies to lots of forms of malware.
  • You’re told to act fast – vendors want you to act while you’re scared because at that point, you’re not thinking straight, and that’s their best chance of getting you to do what they want.
  • Adverts offer you to scan your Mac for a virus immediately – surprise surprise, they don’t scan your computer at all. It’s a ploy to drag you further into their web of fear.

Scareware removal guide

Your first response should be to ignore it, in the sense that you don’t follow the steps it is trying to get you to take. But ignoring it, you won’t get rid of it and will still receive intimidating notifications. To remove the scareware, you need to take action. And the first thing to do is to scan your Mac for malware.

There are several excellent anti-malware tools available for the Mac. I like to use CleanMyMac X because it’s already installed on my Mac and has an excellent and very easy to use Malware Removal tool. The latest, macOS Big Sur-ready, version of CleanMyMac X has an even bigger database of known malware threats, and can scan your Mac automatically, while you work. That means it can notify you about scareware on your Mac even before you realize it’s there. Here’s how to use it.

Turn on real-time scanning

  1. Install and launch CleanMyMac X — get a free version here
  2. Click the CleanMyMac X menu and choose Preferences.
  3. Select the Protection tab.
  4. Check the box to turn on real-time protection.
  5. Close Preferences.

Manually scan your Mac for malware

  1. In the main CleanMyMac X window, choose Malware Removal from the sidebar.
  2. Press Scan.
  3. When the results of the scan appear, press Remove to get rid of the scareware.

If you want to know more about the malware CleanMyMac X has found on your Mac, click on each of the categories of malware to reveal the threats that you can now remove.

Scareware is a particularly nasty type of malware because it preys on users’ fears and often tries to manipulate them into downloading software that will do real harm to their Macs. Other forms try to extract money from users by tricking them into calling premium rate phone numbers of ‘tech support’ or claiming they will return stolen data or photos in return for a ransom.

Thankfully, it’s not too difficult to be vigilant and avoid scareware. And if you are afraid that malware can come in bundled software, you can install CleanMyMac X and be sure that nothing goes unnoticed thanks to its real-time malware monitor.

Laptop with CleanMyMac
CleanMyMac X

Your Mac. As good as new.