If a website asks you to download a “codec,” “player,” or “browser update” to play a video, run the other way. You don’t actually need to download this sort of thing — the website is trying to infect your computer with malware.

Whether you’re browsing social media or clicking through some sort of low-quality video-streaming website, you should never download any sort of “codec pack,” “player,” or “update.” Tell your friends and family!

How Fake Codec Scams Work

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You could come across this sort of scam via a link on social media or on a video-streaming website. You won’t find these ads on legitimate sites like Netflix and YouTube, but on lower-quality sites — the kind of sites where you can stream pirated videos, for example. You’ll see some sort of advertisement, pop-up window, or full-page ad trying to get you to download some kind of malware disgused as a codec, video player, or software update.

If you ever see a message like this one, don’t click it. This particular scam is easy to understand — if you download and run the software, your computer will be infected with something nasty. It could be a Trojan or other serious case of malware — or just spyware and adware. Either way, you don’t want that garbage on your system. Never agree to download this junk — better yet, if you see a message like this one, leave the website.

They may masquerade as codecs or updates, but they’re programs. You should be extremely careful about the programs you download and run because they can gain full access to your computer.

You Don’t Need to Download Codecs or Web Players Anymore

It’s not just a matter of avoiding the fake codec scams themselves. Instead, you should be aware that you’ll never need to download a codec anymore to watch videos.

In the past, the video-playing scene was much more fragmented. You had a variety of different video playback plug-ins like Windows Media Player, QuickTime, and RealPlayer. Some sites used Flash or even Java applets for video playback. Some websites used the DivX web player. Microsoft’s Silverlight was a late entry here.

And that was just the in-browser playback part! If you downloaded videos to your computer to watch them locally, you might have to install various different codecs to play them. “Codec packs” existed to combine all the different codecs you’d need into a single pack so you could get them all at once instead of hunting them down individually.

But those bad old days are behind us, and that isn’t the way it works anymore.

The Three Things You Need

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The current situation is better. You don’t need to download various player plug-ins and codecs while browsing the web, whether you’re playing back videos on a web page or playing back video files you download to your computer. Here are the few things you do need:

  • Adobe Flash: Adobe’s Flash Player plug-in is still used by many websites for video playback. Always get it from the official site at adobe.com — don’t click strange links on websites if they say you need to download it or install an update. You’ll just need to install this once. if you’re using Chrome, Adobe Flash Player is built-in, so you don’t have to even install it separately.
  • A Modern Browser: Modern browsers support HTML5 video playback of H.264 videos and other media content. Modern versions of Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, and Opera all have this integrated. Just be sure you’re using a modern web browser — no ancient versions of Internet Explorer, please. You’ll never need to download a codec to extend your browser’s media playback support — it’s all integrated into the browser itself.
  • VLC for Playing Downloaded Files: VLC media player is a single piece of software that can handle nearly any type of video or audio file you throw at it. Always download it from the official site at videolan.org — not via third-party sites that bundle it with junkware. Use it to play back media files you download. You’ll never need to download codecs separately again.

Be sure you always get Flash, your browser, VLC, or any other software from the official site. Many malicious sites also display “you need to update Java” or “you need to update Flash” scams. If you click their download links, they’ll download garbage software onto your computer.

But What About Everything Else?

Other browser playback plug-ins are vanishing. RealPlayer, QuickTime, Windows Media Player, Java applets, and the DivX Web Player have vanished from modern websites. Silverlight is vanishing, too — Netflix just dropped the Silverlight requirement and now uses HTML5 video. At the moment, you’ll only need Silverlight installed if you want to watch Netflix in Firefox — Firefox is working on adding the required “encrypted media extensions” (DRM) code to the browser so it can work. Adobe Flash is still widespread, and more and more sites are supporting HTML5. One day Flash will go the way of the dodo, too.

If you’re downloading media files, VLC can play everything you want. You can still hunt down individual codecs and codec packs, but we don’t recommend it at all. Due to the increased standardization of media formats, you may not even need to install VLC. Even Microsoft’s neglected Windows Media Player can play back .mp4 files, which is now the most common format.

You’ll usually only stumble across these scammy ads on low-quality video-streaming sites. But you may find yourself on such a site after clicking a link on social media or elsewhere — don’t fall for it.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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