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Victimized by a 'legitimate' drive-by download

A careless, hurried click on the Adobe Flash Player update screen left unwanted McAfee security software on my PC and caused a scary-but-harmless antivirus-conflict warning.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
3 min read
I know very well to uncheck the preselected software offers that accompany so many program updates these days. In August 2009, I edited a story by Susan Bradley in the Windows Secrets newsletter describing how Sun Microsystems, Apple, and Microsoft were making money by pushing unwanted software on unsuspecting customers.

So I have only myself to blame for the half-hour I wasted this weekend making sure my laptop's antivirus protection was active and up-to-date. That doesn't make me feel any better about Adobe preselecting the download of McAfee's Security Scan Plus freeware along with the Flash Player update.

Nor am I particularly happy with the McAfee program warning me afterward that my computer was at risk when in fact it wasn't.

It all started when I turned on my laptop this weekend to burn a mix CD for my brother Larry. In my haste to get back to the Jets-Dolphins football game, I clicked reflexively through the Adobe Flash Player update screen that appeared after I booted up the PC.

Adobe Flash Player update pop-up
Adobe's Flash Player update pop-up doesn't warn unsuspecting users that they may get more software than they want or need. Adobe Systems

(By the way, if you take the trouble to actually read the terms of the license agreement, the link in the update-warning window takes you to a page on Adobe's site that lists the agreements for all the company's products. You then have to download a PDF with more than 60 pages, only seven of which are in English. Could you make it any harder for us, Adobe? I'm sure you'll find a way.)

After applying the Flash Player update, and before I could start burning the CD, a pop-up from McAfee appeared, proclaiming unequivocally, "Your computer is at risk."

McAfee Security Scan Plus warning pop-up
McAfee's interloping Security Scan Plus freeware attempted to scare me into switching from free to paid antivirus protection. McAfee

The warning stated I had more than one antivirus program installed. This wasn't news to me. I've been using Microsoft's free Security Essentials package for real-time virus protection since I bought the laptop almost 18 months ago and have been virus-free for all that time. But I keep other free AV apps on hand for the occasional manual virus scan.

Having more than one antivirus program on your PC can cause problems, according to McAfee's scary pop-up. This is true, but only if two or more of the virus scanners are set to provide real-time protection. On my laptop, only Security Essentials is always on. The other AV programs are used on demand only.

Even worse, clicking the McAfee warning's Fix Now button leads to a page on the company's site where I could purchase the $40 McAfee Internet Security suite. I didn't need it, I didn't want it, and I never asked for it.

McAfee Internet Security suite marketing page
Following the Fix Now link in the McAfee security warning leads to a $40 "fix" for a problem that doesn't exist. McAfee

Since some viruses disable your antivirus protection when they strike, I immediately opened Microsoft Security Essentials, ensured that the real-time virus scanner was active, checked for available virus-definition updates, and then ran a full virus scan. Some 20 minutes later, the scan came up clean.

I'll keep McAfee Security Scan Plus installed only long enough to finish this post. Then I'll uninstall it and take pains to keep it off my system. The program may actually be worthwhile, but the company should really learn not to cry wolf.

As for future Flash Player updates, since there's really no Flash Player alternative for viewing Web video and animation, I guess I'll just have to click more deliberately when presented with Adobe updates.

What I really need is a program that automatically unchecks all preselected offers in software-update dialog boxes. If you're aware of such a program, please let me know about it. My less-cluttered hard drive will be eternally grateful.