Defending Against Pop-Up Scams: Your Ultimate Guide to Online Security

January 2nd · 12 min read

Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|
Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|

Pushed to the limit: Push notifications & pop-ups

Ever feel like your web browsing experience is a digital game of whack-a-mole? pop-ups, or 'Push Notifications,' ambush your screen like uninvited party crashers, warning you about a virus, offering a deal that’s just too good to be true, or prompting you to click for a 'free' gift.

When they first became popular a few years ago, push notifications were like helpful sidekicks in a superhero movie, swooping in with timely updates and insider info. Fast forward to today, and they've gone full villain mode, bombarding us with ads faster than a superhero turning to the dark side. These once-benign notifications now open the floodgates to ad chaos and unwanted software downloads and add to the ever-looming threats of scams. The worst part? Almost everyone is susceptible - if you’ve ever so much as Googled the weather, congrats, you could be at risk.

FBI report: Americans lost $10.3 billion to a wide variety of internet scams last year.

In this article, we'll embark on an eye-opening journey to uncover the secrets behind push notifications and pop-up scams. We'll equip you with online security tips to help you spot them, understand their tactics, and show you how cybersecurity solutions like Guardio can help protect you from their cunning traps. So, brace yourself – it's going to be a bumpy ride. Let’s go!

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Understanding the threat: Pop-up scams and phishing explained

Before we get into the nitty gritty of pop-up scams, let’s back up for a minute and explain what pop-ups are and how they differ from push notifications. Despite being similar in their aim to deliver information, they are very different in the way they look, how you interact with them, and their purpose.

Push notifications

These are messages sent from an app or website to a device, like a smartphone, tablet, or computer, and can be received even when you’re not actively using the app or on the website. They generally appear as small alerts in the corner of your screen or notification center.

Notifications are fully customizable, and you have a significant amount of control over which apps can send them and the types of notifications you want to receive. Normally when you install an app or extension, you’d be asked to give permission to receive notifications. That’s where you can decide if you want to receive them or not.

Pesky pop-up notification

Push notifications in action

Let's say you're an outdoor enthusiast, so you'd naturally have a weather app to stay on top of the weather. One evening as you're planning a nice 5k hike the next morning, a push notification appears on your screen: "Severe Weather Alert: Thunderstorms expected in your area tomorrow. Stay safe!"

This timely push notification is helpful as it alerts you of bad weather, giving you a heads up so you can change your plans and ensure your safety. Instead of heading out unknowingly into a storm, you can reschedule your hike, all thanks to this quick and helpful alert.

Now, let's flip the script and see how push notifications can be manipulated for less savory purposes. Imagine this time you're planning a quiet evening at home with some online shopping. As you browse, a push notification slides onto your screen: "Flash Sale Alert: Your favorite online store is offering a 50% discount for the next hour only! Click to claim your coupon code now!"

Excited by the prospect of a great deal, you might be tempted to click on the notification. However, unlike the helpful weather alert, this push notification could be a scam. Clicking on it might redirect you to a fake website that looks strikingly similar to your favorite store. If you proceed to enter your personal details or credit card information, believing you're getting a fantastic deal, you could unknowingly be handing over sensitive data to cybercriminals. So, while push notifications can be incredibly helpful in some cases, in the wrong hands, they can be a tool for trouble, leading to potential risks and losses.


In contrast to push notifications, pop-ups are windows or boxes that appear over the webpage content you’re viewing. They’re more common on websites and are used for a variety of purposes, like advertising, promotional offers, or capturing user information like email addresses. You’ll usually interact with pop-ups by clicking them, closing them, or sometimes filling out forms. As their name states, basically pops up out of nowhere while you’re browsing.

Pop-ups in action

Imagine looking for the perfect vegan mac n’ cheese dish online. Naturally, you do a quick Google search and find a promising recipe. Just as you're about to dive into the ingredients, a pop-up appears out of nowhere. It's a flashy invite to join a newsletter or snag a cookbook discount, blocking your view of the recipe. This sudden interruption turns your anticipation into annoyance. There you are, craving culinary adventure, but instead, you're stuck deciding whether to sign up, hunt for the elusive 'X' to close the pop-up, or start your search all over again.

In this scenario, what seems like a seemingly harmless pop-up, offering you a sweet deal on a cookbook or a newsletter subscription could be a pop-up scam. To be clear, not all pop-ups are scams, but they potentially could be, and entering your email or clicking a link in the pop-up while searching for that recipe, could be a trap.

The thing is that – not every pop-up is just trying to sell you something; some could be laying a trap. Entering your email could compromise your information, and clicking the link might install malware that spies on your keystrokes, steals passwords, or redirects your browser to pop-up scam sites.

But let's take a step further into the world of 'what ifs.' Picture this: you're browsing, and suddenly, a pop-up that looks like it's from your bank shows up, flashing a warning about suspicious activity in your account. It asks you to log in right away. It feels urgent, it looks legit, but here’s the catch - it’s a pop-up phishing scam. Once you enter your login details, they fall straight into the hands of a scammer, your bank account is breached, and before you know it, your hard-earned money vanishes into thin air.

Overflowing pop-up notifications

But wait, are they both dangerous?

The short answer is yes, but it's a bit more complicated. Figuring out if push notifications or pop-ups are the bigger bad guys isn't straightforward. It really comes down to how they're used or, let's say, misused.

Prevalence of misuse:

  • Pop-ups: Historically, pop-ups have been more notoriously associated with malicious activities. They’re often used for aggressive advertising, pop-up phishing scams, and spreading malware. The intrusive nature of pop-ups, which can appear unexpectedly over website content, makes them an effective tool for scams.

  • Push notifications: While push notifications can also be used for nefarious purposes, such as phishing and spreading misinformation, their misuse is generally less common compared to pop-ups. This is partly because you typically need to grant permission for apps to send push notifications, which offers an initial layer of control.

User control and awareness:

  • Push notifications: As we’ve just mentioned, people have more direct control over push notifications. Most operating systems allow people to manage which apps can send notifications, and this control can minimize the risk. People are also becoming more aware of the need to scrutinize notifications, especially those originating from unknown sources.

  • Pop-ups: While modern browsers have built-in pop-up blockers, scam pop-ups can still bypass these filters. This leads people to inadvertently click on a pop-up, thinking it's legitimate, which can lead to malware infections or a pop-up phishing site.

Potential for harm:

  • Both: If you interact with a scam pop-up or a fake push notification, there’s a very high chance of you being affected negatively in both cases. However, the immediate and intrusive nature of pop-ups can sometimes make them more effective for scams, as they demand immediate attention and can create a sense of urgency.

Context of use:

Pop-ups: Are more frequently associated with websites and can be experienced by anyone browsing the web, which increases the risk exposure.

Push notifications: These are more tied to specific apps and require some level of engagement with those apps, potentially limiting exposure but not negating their risk.

Both push notifications and pop-ups have their dark sides, each with unique risks and vulnerabilities. Since pop-ups are sudden and intrusive, they are more likely to lead to online scams than push notifications. But regardless of their form, both demand attention and caution, reminding us that staying safe online is about being alert, no matter what pops up on our screens.

That's exactly why having robust cybersecurity solutions like Guardio is crucial. With Guardio's browser extension and mobile app, you're fully shielded from these scams. If you accidentally click on a pop-up scam or a suspicious push notification, Guardio springs into action, instantly blocking the fake website. This immediate response ensures you're always in the safe zone online.

This is how Guardio keeps you safe:

- Blocks dangerous websites: Guardio is like your personal digital lookout, giving you a heads-up on anything fishy, from scam pop-ups with malicious links to deceptive pop-up phishing sites.

- Text filtering: Guardio's text protection works like a protective filter, sifting out the bad stuff before it reaches you.

- Email protection: Think of Guardio as your inbox's loyal guard dog, fiercely defending spotting phishing attempts, annoying spam and blocking them.

- Browser security: Surf the web with ease, knowing that Guardio is protecting you from hidden malware and dangerous websites lurking in the shadows.

- Family safety: Keep your loved ones safe, one Guardio account protects up to 5 family members, securing everyone's online world.

- 7-Day Free Trial: Test drive Guardio's protection for a whole week, completely free of charge. It's all about safety, no strings attached.

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Recognizing red flags: Tips for spotting pop-up scams

In the world of click-and-tell, spotting a scam pop-up is crucial for your cyber safety. Look for these unmistakable signs:

  • Too-good-to-be-true offers: A free iPhone for the first click? If it sounds unbelievable, it probably is.

  • Immediate action required: Scammers love urgency. Real notifications give you time to think.

  • Requests for personal info: Legit pop-ups rarely, if ever, ask for your details upfront.

Visual indicators of malicious pop-ups

Malicious pop-ups have a flair for the dramatic, often looking just a tad too eager to get your attention. Keep an eye out for:

  • Misleading close buttons: If you can't spot the exit, it's a trap.

  • Off-brand logos: A slightly off logo is a big red flag.

  • High-pressure tactics: Legitimate ads won't rush you.

How to differentiate between legitimate notifications and phishing attempts

The devil is in the digital details when it comes to separating the good from the nefarious. Here's how:

  • Consistency with your actions: Authentic alerts match your online activities.

  • No solicitation of sensitive info: Genuine notifications won't ask for personal details via pop-up.

  • Appropriate timing: Real notifications appear at logical times, not out of the blue.

Dangers of push notifications and scam pop-ups

The dangers associated with push notifications and pop-ups primarily revolve around their potential misuse for hacking and scams. Here are some examples:

  • Phishing scams: Push notifications and pop-ups can be used to mimic legitimate alerts from trusted sources, leading people to fake websites where they might unknowingly enter personal details.

Picture getting a notification claiming you've hit the jackpot in a lottery you don't remember entering or offering you cash rewards for filling out a survey. These scam pop-ups aren't throwing confetti for your benefit; they're phishing expeditions. Their aim? To reel in your personal and financial info for their shady gains or trick you into giving them the green light to bombard you with even more notifications.

  • Malware distribution: Clicking on scam pop-ups or push notifications can lead to automatically downloading malware, which can compromise your device’s security and personal information.

Suppose you receive a flashing notification that your antivirus program needs an update or that your computer has been infected by viruses. These crafty scam pop-ups lure you into downloading what you believe is a crucial PC cleaning tool. But here's the catch: these downloads are Trojan horses, harboring malware that turns your computer into a scammer's paradise. They can unleash further malware, peek into your sensitive files, take a deep dive into your financial details, and even steal your identity.

  • Malvertising: Pop-ups, in particular, are notorious for deceptive ads that might offer fake products or services, leading to financial loss or subscribing to unwanted services. Malvertising takes the annoyance of pop-ups to a whole new level. It's like a relentless salesperson who follows you around, shoving ads in your face, regardless of your interest. The twist?

The scammers behind these ads aren't really concerned about whether you'll ever click 'buy.' Their game is all about quantity, not quality. Every time a malvertising ad pops up on your screen, it's like a cash register going cha-ching for the scammers. They operate on a 'pay-per-view' model, so the more ads they manage to flash before your eyes, the thicker their wallets get. These ads can range from mildly irritating to downright intrusive, disrupting your online experience while lining the pockets of scammers.

Whether it's a false lottery win, a deceptive malware lure, or the constant barrage of malvertising, these digital hazards underscore the importance of staying alert and informed.

The bottom line

The world of pop-ups and push notifications is loaded with opportunities for scammers to work their dark magic. Each seemingly harmless click or interaction could be a doorway to digital risks and scams. As we've journeyed through the world of push notifications and pop-ups, we've seen their dual nature – sometimes helpful, often deceptive. Those too-good-to-be-true alerts and disguised software updates show us just how cunning online scams can be.

This is where Guardio steps in – your essential tool in avoiding pop-up scams and fight against digital trickery. Guardio works tirelessly to filter out the bad stuff and block those sneaky sites, keeping you safe as you navigate the online world.

So, remember, while staying alert is key, having Guardio as your digital shield adds that extra layer of security. As you click and scroll your way through the internet, keep Guardio close and enjoy the peace of mind that comes with staying safe and protected online.

Ready to enhance your online security? Guardio offers the comprehensive protection you need.

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