As hackers get smarter, it’s getting tougher and tougher to distinguish between legitimate and fake products on the internet. Some programs which are supposed to clean up your computer – like anti-virus software, and registry cleaners – may actually harm it, if designed by the wrong person.

One of the most popular ways to do this is to install a script on the victim’s computer, which may decrease performance, delete programs, and have other negative effects on your PC. After a day or two of this, a legitimate-looking security update will appear on your PC which will tell you that, in order to fix these problems, you need to buy and install a special program, like a registry cleaner.

In the case of registry cleaners, this ‘security update’ will often inform you of a critical error that exists in your registry. Sometimes, it will claim that your registry is damaged, or corrupted. And, the only way to fix it is to purchase a certain product, often for a ridiculous price. If you click on these updates, you will be directed to a site, where you enter your payment information and then download the registry cleaner. Sometimes, this product may even legitimately fix your computer – but only because it installed the virus in the first place. This tricks many users into thinking that they’ve made a good purchase.

In other cases, scare-ware is distributed directly from the browser – without installing anything on the user’s PC. For example, some websites will feature a pop-up that is designed to look like a genuine Windows security message. In fact, these are just another clever way to trick you into buying an overpriced product.

These products are called ‘scare-ware’ because they trick users into thinking that their PC is infected with all sorts of different viruses. For novice PC users, removing these viruses may seem like an insurmountable task, forcing them to look for an easy solution. When an easy solution pops up right on their screen, many people will choose to go that route – even if it means paying 40, 50, or even 100 dollars to a strange website.

Fortunately, Microsoft has taken at least two of these malware companies to court for their involvement in scams like this. In 2008, Microsoft filed a lawsuit against Branch Software and Alpha Red, each of which helped to produce a program called “Registry Cleaner XP”. This is one of the most famous cases of scare-ware, and it forced users to pay $39.95 in order to fix their PC.

Do your best to avoid scare-ware. If any security site looks less than legitimate, check Google to see if somebody else has complained about the scam.