No Search is Sacred: Fakealerts Flood the Net

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20091006_seo_googwill_cropSearch engines appear to be no longer in control of the search results they display at any given moment. That’s bad news not only for the search giants, but for anyone who relies on their results.

How can that be? After all, it’s the search engines’ own servers that are supposed to deliver relevant results based on their super-secret sauce algorithms. But black hat, or rogue, search engine optimization (SEO for short) has ruined the trustworthiness of virtually any search.

Just a few years ago, companies began to spring up making outrageous promises about how they can get a client’s Web site ranked closer to the top of certain search results. Then the purveyors of various worms, fake alerts, and rogue antivirus products got involved, because they quickly discovered that it’s easier to convince someone to infect their own computer by clicking a search result link than to discover and implement an elaborate network vulnerability.

After all, according to our latest research, about one out of every five of surveyed Web surfers implicitly trust whatever a search engine delivers as the first page of search results every time they search.

20091006_seo_malicious_results_1So, all year long, we’ve seen rogue SEO tricks used to promote malicious search results. Many of those links foist various fake antivirus programs onto unsuspecting Web surfers’ computers. The effect is almost instantaneous, as if it was automated: A breaking news story hits the Internet, and within moments, the rogues have turned their attention to pushing bad links based off of whatever keywords the story-of-the-moment might entail. That’s not really unexpected; Google Trends, for instance, makes it incredibly easy for black hat SEOs to target whatever’s hot. Searches for news as diverse as Indonesian earthquakes, elections in Iran, and the untimely deaths of various celebrities served equally well to deliver victims to the rogues.

Now, even the Internet meme of the moment appears to drive victims to malicious Web pages. One of our researchers pointed out a funny screenshot that was making its way through Digg, the social link-sharing site. The screenshot showed some of Google’s suggested search results that appear when you type “Google will” into the search field. Among the auto-completions were “Google will not search for Chuck Norris,” “Google will eat itself,” and “Google will you marry me?”

Even picking one of the most obscure searches, “Google will not search for Chuck Norris,” the eponymous results delivered malicious links not only on the first page, but one as the fourth result on the first page. That search result led directly into a fake antivirus alert page; The fake “Windows Web Security” alert immediately began displaying an animation of a “scan” — with the expected results.

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The alert came from a folder that had been placed on the Web site of a real estate agent in Wilmington, North Carolina. The top level of the site was clean, but one page buried deep within the site contained a script that redirected users into a fake alert black hole. No matter where you clicked — even if you tried to close the browser — the page attempted to convince you to download and execute the installer for a rogue antivirus program. This use of hacked, legitimate Web servers, with a malicious script buried in some obscure subfolder, as the target of these “optimized” search results is another growing trend.

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Another link on the same page led to a screenshot of the humorous Google result that, supposedly, appears when you search for Chuck Norris. But that immediately redirected the browser through a series of exploits which rapidly pushed executables down to the test machine and forced a reboot. After the test system came back up, it had a fully installed copy of the infamous Antivirus 2010, as well as an ad-clicking Trojan that, invisibly to the user, was clicking through Web advertisements hosted by Amazon, Yahoo, and Doubleclick at a rate of about 20 per second.

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What does this mean for the average Web user? I think it means Google and the other search engines have a long way to go before they can really put a dent in search manipulations like these.

Tip of the (white) hat to threat research analyst Abhishek Dubey for finding something useful in a Google search for Chuck Norris.

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