When computers act up, most people automatically fear that a virus may be responsible, which leads many to scour the Internet looking for answers. Unfortunately, according to the Federal Trade Commission, that antivirus download you see flashing on your screen might contain spyware or some other malware that could makes things much worse. Before you install any type of security program that claims to eliminate malicious software from your computer, consider the following.

The Federal Trade Commission Issues a Warning

According to the Federal Trade Commission, users should use caution when they see advertisements or notifications warning them that their computer is infected with malicious software. The federal agency says that these programs are often created by scam artists who aim to take advantage of consumer ignorance.

Often referred to as "scareware," these programs flash large, official-looking warnings informing users that their computers are infected with dangerous spyware, viruses and other types of malware. Usually, the programs then offer a free antivirus download that will supposedly diagnose and repair the problem. Unfortunately, according to the FTC, when users install the software, they are quickly inundated with false messages urging them to install a host of expensive security programs that will supposedly repair what are in fact non-existent issues.

In the end, users either end up paying for something they don't need, or inadvertently leave their systems exposed to viruses or Trojan horses that may be used to harvest their private data.

What Users Should Look For

According to the , consumers should be wary when they see notifications using phrases, such as "free security scan" or "your computer is infected," especially when they come in a pop-up window or email. Additionally, the agency warns that, because many unscrupulous con artists buy advertising space on reputable websites; users shouldn't necessarily trust a free antivirus download just because it appears on a seemingly-credible site.

How to Respond to Scareware

Anytime users are confronted with suspicious security alerts, they should use caution. Unfortunately, it's not always enough to merely recognize a potential scam. To ensure that you don't accidentally install one of these programs, follow the government's recommendations for side-stepping attacks.

According to the agency, users should never click "cancel," "no" or the "x" located in the top right corner of their browser; as some malware programs are designed to come alive when these buttons are selected. Instead, the agency advises Windows users to shut down their browsers by opening their task managers by pressing Ctrl + Alt + Delete and selecting "end task." For Mac users, the agency suggests pressing Command + Option + Q + Esc to “force quit” their browser program.

Finally, if you believe your computer is infected with spyware or a virus, the FTC recommends that you enter the full name of a security program into a search engine, which should provide you with pertinent warnings and reviews to help you assess the product's reputability.