Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Big-name sites still serving up malicious ads

The ads served by Bing and Google along with your search results are linking more and more often to sites trying to infect your machine.

Neither Bing nor Google effectively prescreens these bogus advertisers, so it's up to us to detect and avoid them.

You may recently have used either Google or Microsoft's new Bing search engine to find the popular Malwarebytes Anti-Malware utility or something similar. If so, chances are good that the sponsored ads alongside your search results contained links to the very malware that the security tool is designed to remove.

The three largest search sites — Google, Yahoo, and Bing — regularly sell security-related keywords to criminals looking to trick you into downloading and installing fake anti-malware products. The crooks then steal your personal information or hold your system for ransom before letting you remove their malware from your machine.

The search providers have been aware of this for years. To their discredit, they've done little to end the practice, even though it's in their power to do so. The reason? They're making money hand over fist from those sponsored text ads and don't want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Unfortunately, balancing the scales of justice takes time. What can you do in the meantime to help protect yourself from these malicious ads?

Don't expect flawless protection from your Web browser of choice. Internet Explorer, Firefox, and other browsers now support bad-sites lists, but every malicious ad server may not be known. Nor are browser security add-ons perfect. McAfee SiteAdvisor, for instance, may include results that are up to one year old.

If you're not sure, verify the URL. Microsoft and Google have large payrolls, but the search giants don't employ literal armies to review ad submissions. If you're at all suspicious of an ad's legitimacy, check the URL via a service such as hpHosts, which tracks domain names that researchers have reported as malicious.

Help vendors by reporting malicious advertisers. To report bogus ads on Google, e-mail security at This is likely to be more effective than reporting the site via the search giant's online form. If you discover malware purveyors advertising in Bing's results, e-mail secure at Yahoo, however, offers only a Security Phishing Report Form. I beleive Microsoft or Google should come up with the similar solution.

I do hope that Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo can put their differences aside and correct this situation. In the meantime, be careful when you search and be suspicious of sponsored links. Too many of them are fictitious these days — and dangerous.

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