Safe surfing: beware of pop-up windows

Kathleen Altmann

When you’re surfing the World Wide Web, there’s always a chance you could be taken in by one of the many fraudulent scams set up by cyber criminals. The best way to protect yourself is to be aware of the risk, get to know the different ways in which these fraudsters operate and take the relevant precautions.

Using a pop-up window has become an increasingly popular way of finding potential victims. These scams are psychologically quite effective. Instead of contacting you directly or personally by phone or email, they aim to get you to take the initiative. This gives you a feeling of control, meaning you might potentially be less careful.  

Pop-ups have been around a long time now. You’ve almost certainly seen them before, a small window pops up in the corner of your screen with a message. The message could be anything from an invitation to take part in a survey, to a prompt for you to accept or reject cookies. 

Don’t be fooled by warnings in pop-up windows

If you get a pop-up window with an alarming message saying, for example, that something’s wrong with your computer, that your software has been infected by a virus or a timer starts counting down and you’re warned that your system is about to crash and you need to get in touch with support on the telephone number shown in the pop-up, then you should definitely be suspicious. 

Of course, this scam is about scaring you into taking action before your system crashes. And the countdown timer is intended to pile on the pressure. But if you call the telephone number displayed, then the scammers have achieved their first objective. The criminals on the other end of the line are only too happy to help solve your problem. They say they can only fix the problem with your computer, tablet or smartphone if you give them access to the device. Then they tell you to install some remote monitoring software and give them access. Since you took the initiative and made the call, it seems plausible that this would be the next logical step. 

The aim: getting you to make a payment

Ultimately, the scammers’ aim is to get you to make a payment. They either bill you for their “friendly” support or get you to give them your PIN or TANs so they can arrange unauthorised payments. If you do this, there’s no way of getting your money back.

It’s almost impossible to avoid coming across these kinds of criminal scams when surfing the internet. But by employing some best practices and taking some technical precautions, you can minimise the risk of falling victim to one of these scams.

1. Install a pop-up blocker

Pop-up blockers prevent pop-up windows appearing on your screen. They are only displayed if you give your express permission. 

2. Do your own research

Don’t automatically believe the telephone number displayed is genuine, even if it appears to come from a legitimate company. Do some research, for example, on the company’s actual website and see if the telephone number displayed in the pop-up window really is the right one. 

3. Beware of giving strangers access to your device

If a stranger wants access to your device, take this as a red flag. They may appear to want to help you, but in reality, this could be a “hostile takeover” of your computer. Of course, not every attempt to access your device using remote monitoring software will be a scam. But it doesn’t hurt to first put the phone down and then discuss the matter with friends or family and check the information you’ve been given in your own time. 

4. Don’t be pressured into doing anything

It doesn’t matter what the caller tells you, keep a level head. Don’t be influenced by a countdown timer or anything else designed to pressure you into making a snap decision. And don’t let your guard down just because the caller seems trustworthy and friendly. If you are in any doubt whatsoever, just put the phone down.

5. Don’t give your personal details to a third party

Always remember: you should never give your personal details, especially your PINs and TANs, to others. Always consider whether this information is really necessary for the intended purpose.