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updated 3/23/2012 12:23:34 PM ET 2012-03-23T16:23:34

Anti-virus software is arguably the most critical component to keeping you safe and your computer running smoothly, which makes well-crafted fake anti-virus apps that take advantage of people's security fears such a serious threat.

Symantec researchers  have discovered a new fake AV app called "Windows Risk Minimizer" that is particularly persistent in scaring its victims into handing over their money. Promoted through spam emails, the scareware scam starts when people click on rigged links in the messages that take them to compromised websites and, ultimately, to the site hosting the fake anti-virus software.

The fake anti-virus software doesn't actually infect victims' computers with any malware, but takes them through a serious of hoops that could end with them paying for protection they don't need. 

The first part of the multistep fraud scheme arrives in the form of a JavaScript alert claiming the fake AV software — in this step, it's referred to as "Windows Secure Kit 2012" — "has found critical process activity on your PC and will perform fast scan of system files!"

If the poor wording doesn't tip you off that something is suspicious and you click "OK," a fake threat scan appears to take place, and, of course, it tells you, falsely, that yout your computer is infected with numerous worms and Trojans, including Morto, a particularly vicious and evasive Windows worm  found last August, as well as Ramnit, a piece of financial malware capable of harvesting Facebook users' credentials.

Scary, right? The crooks behind this scam hope so, and the Adobe-Flash-based Web pages make the whole thing seem pretty genuine. And it's a Microsoft product, so it has to be the real thing, doesn't it?

To ease your insecurities, the scammers provide a convenient pop-up "Windows Security Alert" informing you that your system is "at risk of crash," but can be spared if you choose to eliminate the Trojans by clicking "Remove All."

That button, however, is the trigger; clicking it prompts users to download the malicious "Windows Risk Minimizer" program, which identifies what it says are even more infections before unleashing an onslaught of pop-up warnings and alerts, ultimately leading to a page that offers to get rid of these problems for $99.

Theoretically, the criminals could deplete your entire account, as the payment page asks for name, your full credit card number, expiration date and three-digit security code.

Scareware scams, especially multistep ones like this, can be difficult to extract yourself from once you've taken the bait, but legitimate anti-virus software can detect these impostors before they get to you. And a little skepticism — don't trust unsolicited emails, suspicious links or pop-up warnings — can go a long way in keeping you safe.

© 2012 SecurityNewsDaily. All rights reserved

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