Phony Pop-Up Warning Messages Dupe Most Users

New research from NC State University shows how even savvy users fall for malicious system error messages

You can’t count on most users to do the right thing when they’re faced with fake pop-up warning windows, according to new research.

The study, conducted by researchers in the North Carolina State University Psychology Department, looked at whether visual design cues in a malicious warning message would give it away as a phony. Most users can't detect the cues, the study says.

Participants were fooled by phony system error messages 63 percent of the time. That means that they chose the “OK” button in the message box, rather than closing it or minimizing it, according to the study. Only 27 percent of the participants closed out the warning box.

The real Windows XP pop-up and the three fake ones used in the study had similar look and feel, but with a few differences. The text message was the same for all four pop-ups: “The instruction at ‘0x77f41d24’ referenced memory at ‘0x595c2a4c.’ The memory could not be ‘read.’ Click OK to terminate program.”

The first fake warning message had a visible minimize button and changed the cursor to a hand icon when the mouse hovered over it. The second phony one had the same features, plus a flashing background from black to white. The third fake message displayed a minimize button, the Internet browser status bar, and changed the cursor to a hand icon when hovering over the “OK” button.

Over 40 undergraduates participated in the study, using Windows XP Service Pack 2, a MySQL database used to collect participant responses, and a specially designed Internet browser simulator. The participants were not aware of the actual purpose of the study, but were told to rate 20 health-related Websites for clutter on the page via an online rating scale. During that process, the subjects received the four types of error messages.

The researchers discovered in a post-study survey of the participants that even most of those who were aware of the existence of fake pop-up warning windows were duped. Around 12 percent of participants said they clicked on the OK button in the pop-up because the text instructed them to do so, and 23 percent say they always click on OK when they receive an error message. Over 40 percent said they did so because they wanted to “get rid of” the box, and 23 percent had various other reasons for hitting OK.

Getting hit with multiple warnings didn’t do much to improve their ability to distinguish the bad from the legit, either. The majority of respondents fell for the fake ones over and over again.

The researchers -- David Sharek, Cameron Swofford, and Michael Wogalter -- say one solution to the problem of users falling for phony pop-up warnings would be for vendors to create noticeable and “unique” features in their error messages, as well as educating users on what to look out for. But, they acknowledge, the bad guys could then potentially mimic these pop-ups as well.

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