National Consumers League

Consumer Fraud Alert: Unwanted software downloads costing Americans billions

April 5, 2016

Contact: Cindy Hoang,, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—The nation’s pioneering consumer advocacy organization is today issuing a warning for consumers about the increasing prevalence of unwanted software—annoying and sometimes dangerous malware being downloaded unknowingly by computer users. According to the National Consumers League (NCL), which operates the newly relaunched, unwanted software is installed on tens of millions of computers in America and is associated with billions of dollars in fraud every year.

“When you download free software, it might come with an unexpected addition: hidden programs that can cause problems on your computer ranging from the merely annoying to truly dangerous,” said John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications, and fraud. “Unwanted software has been around for some time, but in recent years, it has become an even bigger concern for Internet users and is a significant enough threat to consumers that we’ve issued today’s Fraud Alert to warn them and help prevent these downloads.”

A May 2015 study by Google, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Barbara found that tens of millions of visitors to Google’s services had unwanted adware installed on their computer. Within that group, half had at least two, and nearly one-third of users had at least four such programs infecting their machines. And that’s just for one type of unwanted software infection. Unwanted software was the source of nearly 20 percent of complaints from Chrome users alone in 2014.

A similar study by security firm Namogoo found that 15-30 percent of e-commerce website visitors were infected with malware that causes them to view injected ads, malicious links, and fraudulent spyware on otherwise legitimate sites.

Unwanted software imposes a range of costs on consumers affected by it. They can slow computers to a crawl, resulting in wasted time for users. It can prompt consumers to spend money on expensive computer support services to get the infections removed from their computers. Worst of all, unwanted software can raise the risk of identity fraud, which could potentially result in lost job opportunities, difficulty in obtaining credit, delays in obtaining tax refunds, and thousands of dollars in direct costs.

“While unwanted software can appear to be simply an annoyance that detracts from the experience of using a browser, these dangerous downloads in fact pose a significant security risk to consumers’ personal information,” said Breyault. “Some software will disable security protections and settings to take control of a consumer’s computer, leaving that computer vulnerable to hackers and data thieves.”

At, the new alert explains how unwanted software can get onto someone’s computer, the damage it can cause, and what a consumer should do to do if they have already installed it. The consumer group offers the following tips for avoiding it in the first place:

  • Get your software directly from the source. When you’re looking for a new program, look on the publisher’s website first. Software download repositories may bundle in unwanted software with legitimate downloads.
  • Avoid clicking on pop-ups or banner ads that warn you of slow performance on your computer. This is often a ruse to lead you to websites that host unwanted software.
  • Make sure everything is up-to-date. To best protect yourself, repeatedly update your browser and operating systems; older systems are more susceptible to being infected by malware. Be sure to check for computer and browser updates in computer settings. Ads claiming that your computer software is out-of-date are likely to lead you to more unwanted software.
  • Routinely scan your computer. Use antivirus software to regularly scan your computer for programs that you don’t recognize.
  • Pay attention when installing new software. When downloading programs and extensions, pay attention to the fine print. In particular, be on the lookout for pre-checked boxes that offer to install things like toolbars or other software in addition to the software you were looking for.
  • Heed your browser’s warnings. Most major Web browsers now have functionality built-in that will warn you when you are about to enter an unsafe website. Chances are that if your browser is telling you to not visit a certain website or download a particular program, you’re better off steering clear.


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America's pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit