Miscellaneous 4 min. read

How to Spot Potentially Malicious Advertisements Online

On the internet, most advertisers are promoting a product or a service and nothing more. Some advertisers serve as an annoyance, but with the honest intention of enticing you to visit their websites. The remaining dangerous minority of “advertisers” want your personal information by any means necessary.

According to the 2013 State of the Net Report by Consumer Reports, a projected 58.2 million American adults had at least one malware infection that affected their home PC’s features or performance in the past year.

Fake ads are the primary distribution channel for these malware programs. Their methods have grown more clever and more difficult to detect, infiltrating sites like Facebook, Yahoo, and The Economist in recent years and over the past decade.

This is largely because of the decentralized nature of advertising on the Internet. With millions of individuals and businesses wanting a piece of the online audience, large ad agencies like Google Adsense are forced to mine through potential candidates using vendors and private advertising agencies. Within this structure, it is not unheard of for ill-intended profiteers to pose as a respectable agency offering a “legitimate” ad. In fact, this very flaw in the advertising structure is what led to the malicious banner ads on Facebook and Yahoo.

Clicker Beware

The malicious advertiser’s most potent weapon is trust. As security standards for websites have tightened  and anti-virus software has made its way on to PCs around the world, the prevailing wisdom of the casual consumer appears to be that if content is posted in the right forum, it can be trusted. It is exactly this casual attitude toward personal data security that allows criminals to poach credit card numbers and install keyloggers by way of ads posted inside Facebook games.

For this reason, scrutiny is an important tool in protecting yourself against malicious advertisements. Does the ad belong to a company you’ve heard of? If you haven’t heard of the company, what does a quick Google search say about them? Is the advertisement for a legal product? All of these questions can save you a frustrating afternoon cancelling credit cards and getting rid of malicious software. Consider the nature of what’s being advertised and the company offering the product. Do your research and follow one simple rule: when in doubt, don’t click.

But sometimes even a background check of the company name isn’t necessary. Are you somehow the “1,000,000th customer”? Does the website you are browsing even get one million viewers each month? Suspicious characteristics like these are a red flag that something is fishy. Often times these cheap iPad and millionth customer deals are designed to prey on passing users (who doesn’t want a free iPad?), delivering spam emails to their inboxes instead of iPads to their doors.

While most advertisements take the form of banner ads on the top of websites, and are therefore easy to identify, some more cunning criminals design ads that purposely mimic system messages. For example, some advertisers reproduce the appearance of operating system Windows and alerts to deceptively encourage you to click.

In other instances, the ads may pop-up onto the screen as a “security alert”, usually prompting users to install “required” software. Any software you download on the Internet should come from a licensed and respected vendor and any flashing prompt on a website, no matter how authentic in appearance, is looking to exploit scam you. If placing your mouse over one of these “windows” turns the cursor into a hand, do not click. The hand cursor reveals that the “window” is an Internet link with who-knows-what at the other end.

Measures You Can Take to Protect Yourself

There are a couple of measures you can take to protect yourself from these ostensibly friendly traps. Modern browsers like Google Chrome and Firefox maintain robust databases of malicious websites and IP addresses and will pop-up a warning message when any attempt is made to access them.

Heed these warnings. Unlike “required software” prompts, these messages are legitimate and based on security research and reporting. The next measure is to install anti-virus software and keep it updated, in case you accidentally fall victim to one of these scams. Several strong options exist, including Norton, Kaspersky, McAfee, G Data InternetSecurity, and Bitdefender. 

In addition, you may use the malware protection service from Hotspot Shield VPN to detect and block known malware sites.

One of the most effective steps you can take in keeping your computer clean and your personal information private is to keep a watchful eye on the news. Large websites are quick to handle malicious advertisements when they are detected and will often notify customers of the issue in a timely manner. An occasional glance at Yahoo or Google news headlines will report of some of the bigger nuisances and save you a headache in the process.

Even if you haven’t seen one of these ads yet, chances are you will. And while anti-virus and browser security systems can provide you some level of protection, your most potent weapon against criminals is your brain. Scrutinize the product and the company, check the content for typos and “unbelievable” claims, and click with care. Your identity is a precious thing these days, and certainly more valuable than a new iPad.

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