Online pop-up advertisements can trigger more than just waves of annoyance while you’re surfing the Internet. Clicking on these small ads that suddenly open in a separate window with enticing offers can enable others to capture your personal information—or secretly steal your money.
In the past year, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has received 1,800 complaints about one company—the Affinion Group, based in Connecticut—that allegedly used pop-up ads to trick online shoppers with money-saving offers, only to sock them with credit card charges ranging from $12 to $60 per month for services and products they never ordered.
The BBB charges that Affinion pop-up ads appeared during transactions on legitimate sites selling goods and services. The ads offered rebate cards for products on the website or promoted other incentives, such as “Click here for your 10% savings.”
By clicking on those pop-ups, the BBB says, consumers unknowingly were enrolled in unwanted Affinion services, such as Privacy Guard, Shoppers Advantage, PC Safety Plus and others. Online shoppers didn’t provide their credit card information for the unauthorized charges, says Michael Clayton of the Southeast Texas BBB; the websites where they made their purchases had agreed to automatically transfer that information to Affinion when a pop-up was clicked.
“We believe that our marketing materials are as clear as possible,” counters Affinion spokesman Todd Smith. “We do, however, take every complaint seriously and move quickly to rectify any situation.”
The Affinion Group—which has an “unsatisfactory record” with the BBB report—used to do business as Trilegiant, operating from the same Norwalk, Conn., address. In 2006, according to the BBB, Trilegiant and Chase Bank reached a $14.5 million settlement with 16 state attorney general offices to resolve allegations that the two misled consumers into paying for membership programs and failed to disclose cancellation procedures.
Other types of pop-up ads can burn you, too. Some offer free software—including virus-fighting anti-spyware. But clicking on these offers can instead infect your computer with spyware that tracks your online activity, including passwords and keystrokes in your bank account. In fact, the presence of frequent pop-ups is one indicator that spyware may be hidden on your computer.
Some pop-ups even hold your computer hostage. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) required the operators of Movieland.com, Moviepass.tv and Popcorn.net to pay more than $500,000 to consumers who were barraged with large, long-running pop-ups that could not be closed. Those ads alleged that computer users had signed up for a free trial that had expired, and demanded payments up to $99 to stop the pop-ups. The FTC says hundreds of computer users had never enrolled in the free trial or even heard of the websites until they received the pop-ups demanding payment.
Another common ruse: Pop-up ads purportedly from your bank, asking for information such as your account number and Social Security number. In June members of USAA, which offers financial products and services to active and retired military personnel, were hit with a fraudulent pop-up window seeking such information after logging into the USAA website.
Clicking on pop-up ads is never a good idea, so when they appear, close them by carefully clicking on the “X” icon, usually in the upper right corner of the title bar—not anywhere inside the actual window of the ad.
Windows users can stop pop-ups by clicking “Tools” on the top toolbar, then selecting “Pop-Up Blocker” and clicking “Turn On Pop-Up Blocker.” Most Web browsers, such as Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer, block pop-ups bydefault, or they allow you to block or limit pop-ups (go to their Help tabs to find out how).
Computer experts also recommend scanning your computer with updated antivirus and anti-spyware software about once a week.