The Threat of “Update Emails”

June 3, 2011, By Christian Cawley

Even with the tightest security setup on your Windows PC or laptop, you can be subjected to malware via brand new threats.

As in the early days of online security, newer threats are designed to fool – but whereas in the past a single badly-written email might have included an attachment with a name like “birthday.exe” or something similar, the people behind these email campaigns have become more sophisticated.

My own introduction into the world of viruses and malware was via that very attachment, and the problems that the resulting worm caused were considerable. Fortunately, these types of threat are easier to manage as security software has improved, but spotting fake emails can be a lot tougher, both for humans and software.

You might have seen how phishing emails make an effort to trick the recipient into believing they’re from a reputable source – “update” emails work in the same way, while browser popups offering security software and updates can also be a threat.

The Threat of "Update Emails"Security Problems – Suspicious Updates

Whether you’ve got your home network and PC firewall and program access monitoring sewn up tightly or if you’re using a basic firewall and antivirus combination, these suspicious updates are a threat to your system security.

While the emails can appear realistic, they’re not– but these can easily be managed by making good use of your junk email and spam settings, as well as installing the latest Windows updates.

The biggest threat comes from the browser messages advising an update to your security software – an update that instead turns out to be a new threat.

Fake updates are a relatively new way of fooling computer users, however, by replicating the look and behavior of modern software and playing on the security fears of inexperienced web users, these updates can be devastating to the integrity of any computer system. Once they’re installed (assuming your existing security software permits this) these updates – in reality viruses and other malware – will cause your PC to grind to a halt, and perhaps even send passwords that you have stored in your browser to a remote location.

Prevention is Better than Cure

Awareness is a major tool in battling threats like this. Bear the following in mind:

  • People at Microsoft probably don’t know your email address, and if they do, they won’t be sending you Windows updates via email
  • Trustworthy websites don’t voluntarily scan your computer for viruses.
  • Any website that tells you that your PC or laptop has a virus is a threat, and you should close the browser window straightaway.

As useful as it would be for Microsoft to forward emails with updates included, or for websites to helpfully scan your computer unprompted, to do so would be (in part) a massive breach of trust. Only websites peddling fake software would presume to install software without your consent.

Regardless of how well you deal with this type of threat and what steps you take to avoid it happening again, as long as there are criminals, there will always be online security problems. Suspicious updates are just one of many threats that are out there, so browse safely.

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