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Security & privacy

Scams and malware involving Google Alerts are getting worse – Don’t be fooled

Online scams are as old as the internet itself, and cybercriminals will use any means necessary to steal your information. One particular scam has been used more often over the last few weeks, and there are no signs of it slowing down. This scheme uses Google Alerts, a useful tool that lets you monitor a topic based on specific keywords.

Now, criminals are tapping into Google Alerts to turn your interests into weapons. They’re sending malware-ridden messages masquerading as Google Alerts to entice you to click them. One minute, you think you’ll learn more about one of your favorite topics. The next, you’re facing a bunch of links to malicious websites.

Tap or click here to find out how hackers used Google Alerts to target people in a new Flash Player scam. Now, they’re changing tactics. Here’s what you need to know about the new scheme to hack your accounts through Google Alerts.

It’s easy to get sucked in

Let’s say you set up an alert for “Apple announcement.” This means you’ll receive a bevy of email alerts related to their new product releases this week.

You can set up alerts for anything, and cybercriminals use this to their advantage. The tool is seen as a direct line to your inbox. They hope you’ll click on the email so they can snare you into their data-stealing and malware trap.

As Bleeping Computer discovered, criminals are using Google Alerts for security breaches and incident reports to target victims. When the potential victim receives a legitimate email alert about security breaches, it includes a “cloaked link” to a suspicious website.

“When you open these alerts, instead of being brought to a legitimate web page, you are redirected through a series of sites until you land on one promoting malware, fake adult sites, fake dating apps, adult games, giveaway and sweepstake scams, and unwanted browser extensions,” Bleeping Computer reports.

What can you do about it?

Criminals get around Google’s cybersecurity protocols by cloaking the malicious URL. To explain how it works, we’ll have to define a few terms:

  • SEO (short for search engine optimization): A practice websites use to make search engines rank them higher in search results. Certain keywords encourage SEO. This is useful for websites because the higher they rank on the search page, the more traffic they’ll earn.
  • Search engine spiders: These internet bots search through websites, storing information for the search engine to save. They determine SEO rankings.
  • Cloaking: A technique cybercriminals use to trick search engine spiders. They show the spiders different content than they show visitors like you.

Basically, cybercriminals are fooling both you and Google’s indexing spiders. They show the bots SEO optimized texts stuffed with useful keywords the spiders use for categorizing pages. By tricking the search engine spiders, cybercriminals ensure that their site’s malware flies under the radar.

When you go to one of these sites, you’re not seeing the same text the site shows Google. Since the search engine assumes it’s a legitimate website, it won’t warn you that you’re on a dangerous site. To make sure you don’t go in blindly, we put together a few tips to keep your eyes peeled.

There are several ways to spot a fake URL and to keep yourself safe:

  • When setting up a Google Alert, filter your results to show only the best pages. It’s not a foolproof method but it will root out a big chunk of fake sites.
  • Never click on a link to a website that you don’t know or never heard of.
  • Never download any attachments, files or apps from a suspicious website.
  • Make sure your antivirus software is up to date.
  • Instead of using Google Alerts, make use of other customizable news services like Google News or Apple News.

Keep Reading

Google adds cross-app alerts to your iPhone – Here’s how they work

How to customize your feed on Google News, Apple News

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