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Google ads spreading malware
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Security & privacy

Google ad scam warning: Don’t click this hidden malware campaign

One way cybercriminals spread malware is through malicious apps. We’re always warning you about apps hiding malware and to keep them off your devices. Tap or click here for a recent example of malicious apps making the rounds.

But hiding malware-infested apps in app stores is just one technique. In a worrying trend, scammers are now weaponizing Google Search results to get malware on your device. They are creating malicious Google ads to get victims to click on links that lead to sites that infect their devices.

Read on to see how the scheme works and what you can do about it.

Here’s the backstory

If you have spent time on Google, you have undoubtedly seen advertising inserted between search results. The prime location for paid advertising or promoted links is at the top of the first page of results. That’s what most people see first.

But just because it looks like a Google ad doesn’t mean it’s legit. Cybersecurity company Malwarebytes recently made several discoveries where scammers pay for top-tier advertising. What’s frightening is links in those ads lead to malware-infested websites.

Malwarebytes tweeted about its discovery. Check it out:

The biggest issue, other than malicious links, is that the advertising is made to look as convincing as possible. It has the usual “Ad” label from Google and is tied to searches for popular sites like YouTube, Facebook, Amazon or Walmart.

This is called “traffic hijacking,” where scammers use the name of a well-known brand and link it to malicious websites. The industry term for presenting a text link as something else is called “cloaking.”

Sometimes when you click the link, it redirects you to a website where scammers bombard you with messages about a virus on your computer. The site lists a technical support number you can call, but it’s fake tech support. This can lead to cybercriminals putting malware on your device and sometimes taking control of it.

RELATED: Need to talk to a real person? 10 hard-to-find tech support phone numbers

The Google ad link can lead to several redirects before landing on a site that infects your device with malware. Since the link appears with search results, it will have a much higher click-through rate.

Not all cloaking links are malicious, but it is unethical and goes against Google’s advertising policies.

What you can do about it

Here are some tips to avoid having your devices infected with malware:

  • Avoid clicking on sponsored links or advertising whenever you search for something through Google. Instead, type all web addresses directly into your browser, so you know you’re going to the official site.
  • If you are unsure about a link, hover your cursor over the link to get a preview of the destination.
  • If you see a message from a website that claims you have a virus, it’s most likely a scam. Don’t call the number or click anything on the site. Close your browser immediately and avoid revisiting that site.
  • Always have a trusted antivirus program updated and running on all your devices. We recommend our sponsor, TotalAV. Get an annual plan with TotalAV for only $19 at That’s over 85% off the regular price!

Keep reading

Before your next Google search, beware of these spam ads distributing malware

Tech security tip: How to remove malware from your phone or computer

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