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Has malware found a home on Google Search?

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Google Search

Like billions of others worldwide, you probably use Google Search to find whatever you want online. You don’t hesitate to put your faith in such a vast enterprise. It’s safe. You can depend on it. Unfortunately, Google Search has become prey for intelligent, creative cybercriminals who see it as the perfect base for spreading malware.

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Vectors of attack

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Cybercriminals can attack you from several different directions, using every search engine out there. Experts have termed their exploits vectors of attack. Google Search is ideal as a vector of attack because everyone uses it. With such accessibility, cybercriminals can expand their reach and attract many unsuspecting victims for their malicious activities.

Malvertising

Malvertising is a way to illegally manipulate a search engine to cause people to download malware or inadvertently guide them to malicious websites. The technique involves purchasing Google ads, which usually appear above legitimate links. The goal is for users to download infected copies of free software apps.

Understanding SEO poisoning

SEO poisoning is similar to malvertising regarding the end game, but it does not involve buying Google ads. Instead, a cybercriminal must thoroughly understand how search engines work and have a deep knowledge of Google search algorithms. Those with this kind of knowledge use four avenues of attack:

  1. Keyword stuffing: This is a way to mislead algorithms with irrelevant keywords to give a website a higher ranking.
  2. Cloaking: This is another way to influence search engine ranking by showing relevant information to crawlers but irrelevant content to users.
  3. Manipulating search ranking: Cybercriminals artificially use bots or unsuspecting humans to raise a website’s click-through rate.
  4. Using private link networks: This method uses unrelated websites to boost search engine results artificially.

Of the four, cloaking is currently the most often used method because it is easy to camouflage malicious content on Google.

Targeting Mac users

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Atomic Stealer (AMOS) is a malvertising form targeting Mac users. Cybercriminals trick their victims into downloading malware apps through phishing and malicious ads. In September 2023, it was found that AMOS was impersonating a financial markets tracking platform called TradingView. When viewers clicked on what appeared to be an authentic ad, they were taken to a phishing page where they downloaded the malware-laden app. Although the AMOS campaign was eventually exposed at the time, it has turned up elsewhere to dog Mac users.

Using help from AI

Cybercriminals are using artificial intelligence (AI) to help in:

  • keyword optimization that enables malicious sites to achieve higher search rankings
  • content spinning; that is, creating malicious variations of the same content
  • Creating fake accounts that seem legitimate but spread malicious content
  • Generating constantly changing URLs that make tracking malicious links more difficult

AI helps trick unsuspecting victims into visiting malicious sites where they will likely download malware-laden apps.

Google security issues

Given the seemingly endless resources of a company as large as Google, you might think it would be easy for them to find and shut down cyber criminals. Keep in mind that content on the internet is constantly in flux, and the bad guys have learned to adapt and remain undetected. Cybercriminals today are sophisticated, intelligent, flexible people who are very good at devising ways to evade Google’s anti-abuse systems. These are heavily automated and cannot handle issues like domain impersonation, cloaking, and keyword stuffing.

Caution recommended

At Urban E-Recycling, our customers sometimes share suggestions for safe online surfing. First, could you ensure you have a good anti-malware program? It would help to be cautious about the apps you intend to download, which means double-checking URL addresses. In light of these suggestions and cybercriminals’ ever-more sophisticated activities, we also recommend being very careful about the ads you click on. And remember, Google Search isn’t infallible, so malvertising and other cybercrimes will be with us for the foreseeable future.

 

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