What’s a pop-up? A small internet window that “pops” up on your screen can be useful, annoying or dangerous – often used by companies to get your attention. If you’re a frequent online shopper, you may receive pop-ups that suggest subscribing to the online store’s emails for a discount on your next purchase. Pop-ups can also be irrelevant ads, showing you the hottest mobile game at the moment. Most computer users find them to be rather annoying and tend to ignore them. They can often interfere with whatever you might be doing or reading at the time, so it’s not uncommon for the average internet user to hit that “X” button to close the pop-up.

Sometimes these pop ups contain viruses, and the creators try to trick you into clicking on them. For example: you’re working at your computer when all of the sudden, you get a pop-up notification saying that your PC is infected with a virus and you must “click here” to run a scan or install a specific antivirus software, attempting to sell you fake anti-virus programs. The pop-ups pretend to find viruses on your PC and – after you’ve paid up – pretend to remove it. In fact, these programs are also malware and may install more malware!

Often times it will appear to be a system alert or a Microsoft operating system alert, and can look convincing! And if you know its cheesy and fake, your instinct might be to close the pop-up. Regardless of how legitimate it looks, NEVER click on the site or anywhere on the pop-up! A pop-up may include a button that says ‘Close’ or ‘Cancel’, but there is no guarantee that the link behind the button will dismiss the pop-up. It could even trigger another pop-up or download exactly what a hacker wants you to download – a virus.

The safest thing to do is close your browser; do not click on the X, “Close” or “Cancel” button in the pop-up or on the site because clicking on anything on the page or pop-up can and will trigger a virus download. If that won’t work, bring up your task manager (hold Control + Alt + Delete on a PC and Command + Option + Esc to “Force Quit” on a Mac) and force close the web browser or application where it appeared. Next, notify your IT department that this has happened so your device can be double-checked with a legitimate scan, and see if it was infected.

Some pop-ups don’t come from websites at all, but from malware that has been secretly installed on the user’s PC. If this happens, the device must be thoroughly cleaned using good security software. If your device has been used to access banking, shopping and other important sites, all passwords should be changed immediately because they may have been compromised. This is why it’s particularly important to have strong passwords, proper encryption, and backed up data in the event something like this happens to you.

You can of course always enable a pop-up blocker on your web browser. That however only addresses pop-ups that occur while browsing the internet. It’s always a possibility to have malware already on your computer, or any one of the many applications on your computer could be infected and you don’t even know it. A pop-up blocker can’t save you from that.

No one is immune to pop-ups, especially not malicious ones. Your diligence and security best practices makes them easier to deal with, and keeps your data safe!