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In Security Last updated: September 8, 2021
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Cybercriminals target every web platform that you use, and that includes search engines as well.

Almost every internet user utilizes the search engine in one way or the other. If it weren’t for search engines, you probably wouldn’t be able to dive through millions of web resources at a glance.

And, it is no surprise that it is also the best way to distribute malware.

Indexing a Malicious Website No Longer Works

There are thousands of malicious websites among billions of web pages listed on Google, Bing, and several other search engines.

No matter how strict the policies, the attackers successfully put up a website that tricks automatic scans.

However, even if an attacker creates a website and gets it listed in a search engine, it is tough to gain search engine ranking. Without that, an attacker will have a hard time luring visitors.

So, the attackers have a new way of promoting a malicious website through a search engine, i.e., search advertisements.

Malicious Search Advertisements: How Do They Work?

search engine malware

Search advertisements ensure maximum visibility of a website for a particular keyword.

Of course, the visibility and effectiveness will also depend on the advertising budget, but it may not be a problem for attackers.

In 2021, the attackers used Google pay-per-click ads to distribute malware. The link leads to a malicious ISO image disguised in the name of popular software packages like Telegram, Dropbox, AnyDesk, and others.

These ads often compete with the legit business ads and have also beaten them in some cases.

A minute’s worth of exposure like that could tempt thousands of visitors to the malware. And, if the advertisement manages to stay up for longer, it can affect hundreds of thousands of users.

This is not the first time either. Bing was previously affected by spam and malicious listings.

While some other search engines may not have an extensive ad network, no one can successfully prevent these types of attacks.

How Do Malicious Search Advertisements Evade Detection?

With millions of advertisements, it is not possible for manual verification for every listing. Hence, they use automatic malware scanning tools to check whether a website is safe or not.

No matter how advanced they are, there are limitations.

For instance, the ISO size of the malware is larger than 100 MB, which automated solutions skip scanning for malware. And, for the website, they put in effort and time to present it as a proper blog or business website that hosts the malware.

Any automated solution is ineffective in verifying the background information about a website. Also, it is impossible to verify every web portal’s legitimacy popping up on the web.

So, the attackers take care of every common factor and then push the advertisements linking to the website.

How To Stay Safe From Malicious Ads?

malicious ads

As a visitor, you cannot detect a malicious advertisement that aims to steal your personal information or get you in trouble.

But, there are a few pointers that you can keep in mind to avoid interacting with the website or enter your personal information after clicking on the link:

  • Please take a closer look at the domain name (to check whether it is the official website or fake)
  • Use DNS content filtering services to block known sites that are malicious
  • Does it prompt you to download some software? (If so, verify the authenticity of the software)
  • Does it promise anything too good to be true?
  • Use security extensions to ensure maximum security

Ad networks have been trying their best to combat malicious ad campaigns. However, attackers constantly evolve with their strategies to distribute malware.

Keep an Eye Out for Malvertising 🧐

No matter what search engine you use, you should not trust any advertisements that occupy the first spot in the search results. And, if it is too good to be true, that is a red flag.

Of course, as a general rule of thumb, you should not trust any web resource without verification. Still, you may end up believing a search ad delivered by Google or Microsoft, or any other search engine company.

So, it is best to avoid them and look for what you want from the rest of the available web pages listed in the search result.

  • Ankush Das
    A computer science graduate with a passion to explore and write about various technologies. When he’s not writing, it is usually his cats who keep him busy.
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