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Security & privacy

Hackers using a popular Google service to spread malware

There are more ways than ever to stay informed on your favorite topics. Many opt to subscribe to Twitter accounts or RSS feeds for by-the-minute updates on items of interest. Others, instead, follow along with podcasts and newsletters (like Kim’s) to keep up to speed.

But one service that’s become incredibly popular for tracking newsworthy items or trending topics is Google Alerts. Unlike typical feeds or subscription services, Google Alerts lets you monitor a topic based on the keywords you choose. This makes it simple to keep tabs on your interests, no matter how diverse they may be.

While users have been enjoying Google Alerts for some time now, it looks like hackers and scammers have finally jumped on the bandwagon. Using search engine rigging tactics, these opportunists are crowding alert feeds with malicious websites and spam that can potentially drain your wallet. If you use Google Alerts, here’s what you need to know about the latest attempt by cybercriminals to capture your computer and wallet.

Hijacking updates for profit

Cybersecurity analysts at BleepingComputer have put out an advisory warning Google Alerts users of attempts by scammers to inject malicious results into their feeds.

With Google Alerts, subscribers are typically informed about requested topics based on what’s trending on Google’s search engine. By gaming the algorithm, scammers are forcing spam websites that can potentially phish or compromise users into popular keywords with the hopes that Google Alerts will pick them up.

The analysts noticed the issue increasing more prominently over the past few months. Since they followed security and malware related topics on Google Alerts, they were surprised to see a number of “tech support scam” websites showing up in their feeds. It was after looking closer, however, that they noticed the issue seemed to be an intentional effort rather than a coincidence.

As a test, the analysts decided to set Google Alerts for the keyword “ransomware.” What followed was a string of alerts for “decrypters,” which are pieces of software designed to help ransomware victims free their files.

The decrypter pages, however, turned out to be nothing more than spam websites that wanted you to call an international hotline for “tech support.” The perpetrators are banking on desperate users searching for ways to help themselves, only for them to fall victim to a cybercrime double-whammy.

How can I keep this spam off my feed?

Since these websites are mostly phishing and tech support schemes, the easiest way to deal with them is not to interact with them at all. When they’re submitted into your Google Alerts feed, however, this becomes quite a bit more difficult.

Fortunately, Google Alerts can be configured to ignore newly submitted or low ranking websites and suggestions from your feed. In order to stop them, simply log in to your Google account and visit There, you’ll need to select one of the topics you’re following and click Show options.

From here, navigate to the section labeled How many and select Only the best results from the dropdown menu.

This will cause your Google Alerts to automatically filter out low-quality websites, but keep in mind that you still might lose out on some legitimate sites that get blocked on account of being new or not optimized for search engines.

Even still, it’s a lot better than having to wade through a minefield in order to find relevant information. If only there were a way to filter these kinds of garbage websites from all search engines.

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