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That Computer Virus You Can’t Remove Might Be a Browser

A mockup browser popup stating that there's a virus on your computer. The popup uses an AVG logo to look more authentic.
Andrew Heinzman

A friend of Review Geek recently reached out for help with an old fashioned pop-up computer virus, the kind that pretends it’s antivirus software. But these messages weren’t really pop-ups; they were browser notifications from a website, and as such, they couldn’t be removed by legitimate antivirus software.

If you constantly see these notifications in Windows or macOS, you should never open them. Instead, you need to disable them by hand. Here’s how to get the job done, plus some info to help you avoid these “virus” notifications in the future.

Is This “Virus” Dangerous?

On their own, browser notifications aren’t dangerous—they’re legitimate parts of Windows and macOS. And while browser notifications are often annoying, they can also be quite helpful. The Gmail website can send you notifications when you receive emails, for example, and sites like CNN can notify you of new stories.

But in this case, hackers are using the browser notification system to try and trick people. Opening these notifications will redirect you to a webpage, which may ask you to install an “antivirus software,” which is really just malware or ransomware. Either that, or the website will ask for personal details, such as credit card info or sensitive login credentials.

If you close or disable these “virus” notifications, they’ll just keep coming. And if you open one of the notifications, you’re putting yourself at risk of malware or identity theft. (That’s why we have a handy guide to disable these pop-ups at the bottom of this article.)

I strongly suggest running legitimate antivirus software if you’ve opened one of these pop-ups. And if such a pop-up redirected you to some login page, it’s time to reset all of your passwords.

This isn’t a new trick, by the way. Hackers figured out that they could target victims using browser notifications several years ago. Companies like Malwarebytes have tried to educate people on the problem, but for the most part, hackers have faced little resistance from browser makers.

Where Did These Notifications Come From?

A shady video streaming site telling users that they have to enable notifications to watch video. The notifications are the "virus" popups.

Browser notifications can’t force their way on your computer. Websites that want to share these notifications send a request to your browser, which then asks if you want to “Allow” or “Block” incoming notifications.

In other words, if you keep getting pestered by fake “virus” notifications in Windows or macOS, it’s because you gave a website permission to send such nonsense.

You should never enable browser notifications on a website you don’t trust. Of course, you may already know that, which is why hackers often use social engineering techniques to catch their victims. In the above image, which was captured by Malwarebytes, a pirate video website warns that you can’t play a video until you enable browser notifications.

Hackers love to target victims through pirate websites, though they may also utilize phishing techniques to make their scheme look more legitimate. Some of the images included in this article, for example, are from a website that disguised itself as a Yahoo video page. (The fake Yahoo page was taken down on February 28th.)

How to Get Rid of Those “Virus” Pop-Ups

an image of the Browser Notification permissions page in Chrome.
Andrew Heinzman

Because these fake “virus” pop-ups utilize your operating system’s notification system, they can’t be removed by antivirus software. Instead, you need to disable them manually.

First, take note of the web address that appears in your “virus” notifications. We’re going to open your browsers’ list of sites that can send notifications and disable all activity from this address.

Here’s how you find your notification list in Chrome, Safari, and other popular browsers:

  • Chrome: Open Chrome and paste “chrome://settings/content/notifications” in your address bar (without the quotation marks). Then, press enter.
  • Safari: Open Safari and use the Command+Comma keyboard shortcut to open Preferences. Then, select the “Websites” tab and pick “Notifications.”
  • Edge: Open Edge and paste “edge://settings/content/notifications” in your address bar (without the quotation marks). Then, press enter.
  • Firefox: Open Firefox and paste “about:preferences#privacy” in the address bar (without the quotation marks). Then, scroll down to the “Permissions” section. Press the “Settings” button next to the “Notifications” option.

Once you’ve accessed your browser’s notification list, find the web address that appears in all of those rogue pop-ups. Press the options or settings button next to this address and select “block” or “remove.”

If you want to make things easier, you can clear everything from your notification list or disable the feature entirely. I suggest the latter option if you’re fixing a tech-illiterate relative’s computer.

Don’t walk away from this article thinking that browser notifications are evil. Full disclosure—I keep the crap disabled because it’s annoying, but browser notifications can be useful for keeping up with your inbox or your favorite news outlets.

Still, browser makers like Google and Microsoft need to make notifications more secure and transparent. This feature shouldn’t provide an avenue for phishing schemes, and people shouldn’t need to dig through settings to disable annoying notifications.

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