Scammers abuse Google Trends to poison search results

They're riding the coattails of hot news, including Gmail's outage, to game Google

Cyber crooks are using one of Google's own tools to poison search results with links that spread fake security software, a researcher said Thursday.

"Malware distributors have abused Google Trends before," said Craig Schmugar, a senior threat researcher with McAfee. "But I've never seen them use it as aggressively as they are now."

Google Trends, a tool the search giant rolled out last June, highlights the most popular searches of the past hour. At mid-day Thursday, for instance, the No. 1 search phrase, according to Trends, was "Obama budget."

Scammers and malware makers are closely monitoring Google Trends to guide them in selecting search phrases and legitimate news content, which they then integrate into their own fly-by-night sites, said Schmugar. The idea is to "game" Google into ranking their malware-hosting sites near the top on scores of high-profile, current events-related search results.

"I'm not talking about just a few sites," Schmugar said. "I've collected a lot of them, with poisoned links [in Google search results] that are pretty high up, almost always in the top 10."

News accounts recently abused by hackers have ranged from this weekend's stories about a worm spreading on Facebook to the attack last week by a chimpanzee that left a Connecticut woman in critical condition, said Schmugar. "They're grabbing content from pages that are already popular," he said. "They grab content from those pages and put it on their own site."

More recently, Schmugar has monitored poisoned links ranked high on searches for "Gmail down," a reference to the two-and-a-half hour outage at Google's Web-based e-mail service on Tuesday.

Because the malicious sites share the same content as legitimate pages which are currently of great interest -- and because the scammers also name those pages with the popular search phrases it pulls from Trends -- Google's ranking algorithms push those sites toward the top when people search for that news or use those search strings.

"It looks like they're following Trends, which refreshes every hour, and then reacting very quickly to produce their own sites," said Schmugar. The only common element he's found so far among those sites is that they are all hosted on free site hosting services. "Some portion of this must be automated," he added, to account for the quick reaction time to the hot searches and content touted by Trends.

All the poisoned links lead to sites that hit users with phony security warnings; those alerts then try to trick users into downloading a free anti-virus program. The download, however, is actually a Trojan horse that continues to duns the user with fake warnings. The only way that users can stop the messages, and to supposedly clean their PCs of infection, is to pay for the worthless software.

Distributing "scareware," as the category is sometimes called, can be very lucrative. Last year, Joe Stewart, the director of malware research at SecureWorks Inc., said he had found evidence that some hackers were making as much as US$5 million a year from the practice.

Schmugar's advice? "Look carefully before you click," he said.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags scamsgoogle trends

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Gregg Keizer

Computerworld
Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?