One visit to the wrong website is all it takes for your device to be infected, cybersecurity researchers told The Cyber Express, in the wake of the recent FBI alert on search engine results.
According to the FBI announcement, cybercriminals use the names of well-known brands in search engine ads in order to direct users to harmful sites. These sites often contain ransomware and are used to steal login information and financial details, especially related to cryptocurrency platforms.
“It is difficult to quantify the prevalence of bogus search engine ads, as they can vary in their nature and sophistication. Some may be obvious scams or spam, while others may be more subtle and difficult to identify as illegitimate, Beagle Security senior cyber security engineer Manindar Mohan told The Cyber Express.
Bogus websites and malware
“Cyber criminals purchase advertisements that appear within internet search results using a domain that is similar to an actual business or service. When a user searches for that business or service, these advertisements appear at the very top of search results with minimum distinction between an advertisement and an actual search result,” said the FBI alert.
If a user is searching for a program to download, the fraudulent page may actually link to malware. In other cases, the fake sites may imitate financial organizations, especially crypto exchanges, and prompt users to enter their login information and financial details.
“Regardless of their prevalence, it is generally a good idea for users to be cautious when clicking on search engine ads, as some of them may be scams or may lead to websites with malicious content. It is important to carefully evaluate the website or product being advertised and to do some research to determine its legitimacy before entering any personal information or making a purchase,” noted Beagle Security’s Mohan.
The user need not click any link to be infected, according to the Google browsing safety guidelines.
Wrong website, wrong time
“You’ll see the message ‘This site may harm your computer’ beneath the site URL when we think the site you’re about to visit might allow programs to install malicious software on your computer,” said the Google advisory.
Mohan defines unsafe websites as those that contain malicious content or that are designed to deceive or scam users. These websites are built to expose user devices to viruses, malware, or other types of online threats, or by trick the user into providing personal information or make purchases that may not be legitimate.
“When the user visits such a website, malicious software can allow unwanted programs to steal passwords and credit card numbers, slow down your computer, or change your search results. We recommend that you don’t visit the site until this message disappears from the search result,” said the Google advisory.
Mohan points to a more serious but prevalent issue: data harvesting.
Cookies, browsing pattern and data harvesting
Text files known as cookies collect bits of data about users as they navigate the internet. While individual cookies do not contain personal information about users, they provide details about a person’s web browser and browsing habits. When combined with other relevant cookies, these text files can be used to create an online “persona” that predicts behaviors and tracks trends in browsing.
“Since the data in cookies doesn’t change, cookies themselves aren’t harmful,” said a Kaspersky advisory on cookies.
“They can’t infect computers with viruses or other malware. However, some cyberattacks can hijack cookies and enable access to your browsing sessions. The danger lies in their ability to track individuals’ browsing histories.”
Data harvesting refers to the practice of collecting and storing large amounts of data from a variety of sources. This data can include personal information such as names, addresses, and email addresses, as well as other types of information such as browsing history and online activity.
According to Mohan, data harvesting and user tracking by using cookies can potentially affect the safety of website browsing in a number of ways.
“While tracking can be used for legitimate purposes, such as to personalize a user’s online experience or to deliver targeted advertising, it can also be used in ways that may be considered invasive or that may pose a risk to user privacy. Data harvesting can pose a risk to users if the data is collected and stored by parties that do not have the user’s best interests in mind, or if the data is not properly secured and is vulnerable to being accessed by unauthorized parties,” he said.
Users are hardly aware of the working of cookies, their use in tracking, or data harvesting. However, the onus of taking the steps to protect their privacy and security when browsing the web still falls on them.
Mohan suggests these steps for safe browsing:
Use a browser extension or plugin that blocks ads: There are several browser extensions and plugins that can block ads from appearing on websites, including search engine ads.
Use a search engine that does not display ads: Some search engines, such as DuckDuckGo, do not display ads as part of their search results.
Adjust your browser settings to block ads: Most modern web browsers allow users to block ads through their settings. To block ads in your browser, you will need to access the browser’s settings menu and look for options related to blocking ads or pop-ups.
Use a private or incognito window: Browsing the web in a private or incognito window can help to reduce the number of ads that you see, as these types of windows do not store cookies or other data that can be used to track your online activity and deliver targeted ads.