Microsoft Takes on the Scammers

Category: Security , Software

Starting March 1, 2018, programs that attempt to coerce users into paying for dubious protection or PC performance “optimization” will be removed automatically by Microsoft Windows Defender Antivirus and other Microsoft security products. I can think of several rogues that will be hopefully out of business soon. Here's what you need to know...

Bringing Down the Hammer on Scammers

Recently I wrote about bogus antivirus and system optimizer programs that promise a "free scan" and then try to scare you into buying a worthless product.

Microsoft has announced they are taking aim against programs like these, and other “free security/performance checkup” scams.. Hallelujah! These programs are legion on the Internet, and often owned by the same devious companies.

They dominate the top spots in search results by paying the most to place their ads there. (I wish Google would do more to police this.) Every day, thousands of people who are trying to find free help for real PC problems instead get sucked into vortexes of FUD - “Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt” - and jerked around in expensive circles by con artists who follow a time-tested formula:

Rogue software - fake antivirus

  1. Offer a free “checkup” of a PC to find malware or causes of sluggish PC performance.
  2. Display a spinning circle or “Please wait, finding problems that could cause disaster” messages
  3. Show the victim screen after screen of alarming “warnings” about “infections” and “vulnerabilities” that actually don’t exist; the step above is just drama.
  4. Pressure the victim to pay for the “premium” version of the useless software, which does not exist.
  5. If the victim buys, tell him the problem that doesn’t exist is “fixed” but more problems remain.
  6. Pressure the victim again for even more money for a bogus “fix” to problems that don’t exist.
  7. Repeat steps 5 & 6 as long as they work.

Some of my readers have been cheated out of hundreds of dollars by such scams, and it makes me mad! That’s why you will find so many articles about genuine, free anti-malware and PC optimization utilities on this site, as well as articles exposing and shaming the con artists. (Start with my UPDATE: Free AntiVirus Programs and follow links there.)

Optimizing The Anti-Optimizer Strategy

Microsoft first set some mild standards for “cleaner and optimizer” programs in February, 2016. All such programs had to do was tell a user specifically what problems it proposed to fix, and the program got a pass from Microsoft security products. Look how well that "honor system" approach worked for everyone! But now, Microsoft is getting serious, and dropping the hammer on these scam programs.

Microsoft’s evaluation criteria is a document specifying unacceptable characteristics of programs scanned by Windows Defender and other Microsoft security programs. A new section spells out “Unwanted behaviors: coercive messaging” that will cause a program that exhibits it to be removed automatically from the user’s machine.

Even when victims say, “No, I won’t pay,” a fake cleaner/optimizer can still try to wring some money out of them by persuading or scaring them into answering a “short survey.” Ostensibly, the victim’s answers will only be used to help improve the “free” program.

But the deeper a victim goes into such surveys, the more personal and sensitive the questions become. You can easily be suckered into giving up bits of personal data that enable identity thieves to figure out the answers to your “secret” password recovery questions, or the actual passwords that you use, or the name of your bank, and other tools of ID theft.

Microsoft’s new “unwanted behaviors” include this sort of con, too. Programs that use such slimy tricks will be removed from PCs defended by Windows Defender beginning March 1.

Also on the “unwanted behaviors” list are programs that suggest they are the only way to fix a problem; programs that set a deadline for the user to take action; programs that require the victim to download a file (which is probably a Trojan or virus); or sign up for a newsletter (so your email address can be sold to spammers). Such programs will be deleted automatically starting March 1.

Have You Encountered Rogue Software?

You can help in this fight against the scammers. If you encounter what you think may be rogue software, report the problem to Microsoft. You can anonymously submit a program to Microsoft for analysis, and security researchers will analyze the file(s) to determine if they should be classified as malware.

If you are running Windows 10, Windows Defender is included and enabled, unless you've installed a third-party security tool. I've been critical of Defender in the past, but it seems to have improved greatly, and has some compelling new features. (See UPDATE: Is Windows Defender Enough Security?)

Microsoft's announcement says that the "rogue removal" feature will be included in "Windows Defender and other Microsoft security products," but they didn't go into any detail about what those other products are, or if this protection will be extended beyond Windows 10. As more information becomes available, I'll update you.

I applaud Microsoft for taking direct action to protect Windows users from one of the most widespread threats online. I just wish they’d done it back in February, 2016, instead of setting easily circumvented, toothless rules.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Microsoft Takes on the Scammers"

Posted by:

02 Feb 2018

That's all well and good but a significant portion of users don't use Defender. It's usually disabled by default when you use a 3rd part A/V program. It's the 3rd party developers that need to incorporate that into their software.

Posted by:

02 Feb 2018

"I've been critical of Defender in the past, but it seems to have improved greatly, and has some compelling new features."

That reads like damning with faint praise, Bob. I prefer for you to come right out and say what you mean.

Posted by:

John Anderson
02 Feb 2018

Is there any connection between this and Windows Defender telling me Malwarebytes is turned off when it really isn't?

Posted by:

02 Feb 2018

I do not like Defender, I cannot remove from my system, and I use Kaspersky Internet Security Suite 2018. Part of Defender is disabled, but some of it is still running.

Posted by:

02 Feb 2018

Frankly, I am not impressed. Sorry, but I want to know why Microsoft hasn't done this, a couple of decades ago???

I have been "hit" by these types of bogus programs, since I first started going on the Internet, back in 1997. Do I get them everyday? No, but often enough that it does make me mad.

Microsoft has given a hoot about all of the security issues, since the beginning of Windows, MS Office and the like. Otherwise, MS would have updated the OSs as soon as possible, instead of waiting for others to tell them what to do.

I have had Anti-Virus/Malware coverage since 1998. The first program I used was Zone Alarm and I had Ad-Aware by Lavasoft. Both of these programs were Free and they only wanted a donation, at that time. Things have changed a lot, since then.

My next product was AVG, the Free version and it worked diligently for almost 8 years before I purchased the Pro version. Then AVG started taking too much resources, I found aVast! (that is the way it was first titled, okay?) and used the Free version for about 7 years before I purchased the Paid version.

In the past few months, I became concerned about Avast. I really didn't like all of the advertising that it would do, especially since I had the Paid version. It was time to renew and I began looking for another A/V program. I had been a customer of Avast for a long time and in my renewal, there was NO discount or special pricing. When a company does this, I feel like I am being "stabbed in the back."

I tried a couple of different A/V products, finally selecting Bitdefender Total Security 2018 for 5 devices and 3 years! I felt that I got a really good deal. I am completely amazed that Bitdefender does NOT take a lot of resources! It simply works and works quietly in the background. I am happy with my choice.

Bob, you and several of your readers may not agree with me. However, this has been my experience. I have also learned how to recognize a potential bad program, early enough to do some good. I may not be a certified Geek, but I am a Geek none the less.

I can't begin to express my gratitude to you, Bob. . .For all of your articles in the past 2+ decades. What I have learned from you is immeasurable and you just keep on giving wonderful information to learn from. Thanks, Bob once again for all that you do for your readers.

Posted by:

Jeff Ferguson
02 Feb 2018

My understanding of Windows Defender in Windows 10 is as follows: it is by default the AV app in the OS. If you install a 3rd party AV and/or anti-malware app such as Malwarebytes, etc., then Windows Defender "promotes itself" as the "security supervisor" to monitor that the 3rd party apps do their jobs. Yes, it is unremovable and I agree, it is pretty good alone also.

Posted by:

02 Feb 2018

I totally agree with MmeMoxie!!!


i AM CURRENTLY USING Windows Defender in Win7.

Takes up few resources, is always updated, and catches a few things now and then, and doesn't keep flooding you with worthless crap on your screen.
I have other programs that I run weekly and monthly.
You can't rely on just one program, you need an arsenal.

Thanks for the good work Bob!!

Posted by:

Ed Jervis
02 Feb 2018

It is not clear in you article if the user will have a choice of whether to keep the program or not. You say they will automatically remove the program. Does that mean with or without approval by the user? If there is no user choice involved, that's the end of my use of Windows Defender. Microsoft tries to make too many choices for us as it is. I would think that it is only a matter of time for Microsoft competitor programs to start appearing on the bad list. I think Windows Defender is the best, just as it is.

Posted by:

02 Feb 2018

what is your opinion of P C Matic i have had it for 18 months american made product

Posted by:

Robert A.
02 Feb 2018

It would be wonderful if Microsoft could share this particular technology with all the other major, legitimate anti-virus and anti-malware makers, so that everyone could play on the same page, regarding computer security.

Posted by:

Tem M
02 Feb 2018

I never see any evaluations or comments about System Mechanic by iolo or their new Phoenix360. Are they one of the good guys or bad guys? I have used them for years without any problems that I am aware of.

Posted by:

02 Feb 2018

i really don't have much trust in microsft and their bias!

Posted by:

02 Feb 2018

Microsoft's initiative is most welcome. Now, although not quite directly related to computing, my prayer is that somebody will come out with a way to effectively and completely block nuisance, scam, robo-, and other intolerably intrusive phone calls.

Posted by:

06 Feb 2018

I have had good results using TeleZapper. They run abt $20 on Ebay. Phone rings once.

Posted by:

13 Feb 2018

I was nearly fooled by TotalAV. When I attempted to download TotalAV, it was immediately blocked and quarantined by both AVG and Malwarebytes. Malwarebytes, in fact, branded TotalAV "dangerous" and automatically rebooted my laptop to finalize its removal.

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