Looking for Trouble: How Your Web Searches Are Putting You at Risk for Malware

When you’re looking for ideas for your next weekend getaway, instructions for a home improvement project or just about anything else, chances are you head online, turn to your favorite search engine and find what you need in minutes.

And while the majority of Web searches aren’t going to cause you trouble, there are some searches that have a greater potential for infecting your machine with malware, spyware, adware and other unwanted software that does everything from reduce your machine’s performance to make you vulnerable to data theft.


Free, But Not a Bargain

A few years ago, a study was released listing the search terms most likely to cause trouble. By far, the top search term for malware is the word “free” — especially when combined with certain other terms, like “free games” and “free e-cards.” Malware developers know most people want a deal and capitalize on the ongoing quest for bargains by loading desirable free content, such as song lyrics or streaming music and videos with harmful software.

However, those “free” downloads often come with more than the user bargains for: a computer infection. One of the most common types of malware appearing via free download is a “free PC checker” or other program purporting to improve your computer’s performance. The problem? Most of these programs are the cause of the problem in the first place! To remove the problem through the already installed program generally requires payment. As a result, what started as a simple way to fill a few hours online with a fun game turns into a costly — and possibly damaging — ordeal.

It’s not only search terms containing the word free that are harmful. Other terms that capitalize on popular trends, such as ring tones, game cheats and puzzles are likely to lead to results tainted with malware — as are searches involving trending celebrities or news events. For instance, during the 2008 Olympics, terms related to athletes like Michael Phelps or generic terms like “Olympics” or “Beijing” saw a spike in infected results.

Avoid Problems

Since you probably won’t stop searching the Internet any time soon, how do you protect yourself against search results laden with malware?

First and foremost, install effective antivirus software and ensure it updates automatically. Choose an Antivirus program that uses reputation management to evaluate websites, and that will block those known or suspected to contain malware. Also, manage your settings so no program can self-install on your machine without your permission.

Second, be careful about what you’re downloading and only install software from trusted sources. For example, if you want a screensaver of a popular musician, choose one from that person’s official fan site, not from an obscure site of questionable origin. Likewise, be wary of offers that seem too good to be true. For example, many sharing sites that offer free downloads of movies and music shared by other users are loaded with malware. Essentially, if you can download a recent hit movie or every song on the current charts for free, there’s a good chance you’ll be getting more than you expect.

Finally, since many sites require you to sign up in order to access “free” content, it’s very likely you’ll see an increase in spam messages once you do so. If you absolutely must access particular content, set up a dedicated email account using a free service to capture all of the spam and keep your personal inbox organized.

While virus protection and security solutions do a lot to keep computers free of harmful software and prevent data theft, the first line of protection is always the user. Understanding that your online behavior and your searches — and the results you click on — can increase the chances of an infection will help you avoid unnecessary trouble, and keep your computer and data safe.

About the Author: Jon Clay is a security technology expert with Trend Micro and currently holds the position of Sr. Global Marketing Manager, Core Technology.  His responsibilities include content creation and training for different core technologies within Trend Micro as well as threat research and intelligence.  Jon has been with Trend Micro for 17 years and has held roles as a Sales Engineer, Sales Engineering Manager, Training Manager and Product Marketing Manager.  He has a BS in Electrical Engineering with emphasis in Computer Engineering from Michigan State University and has been involved in technology for over 26 years.  This experience has given him an excellent technical background and understanding of the security requirements of businesses as well as an excellent understanding of the threat landscape.

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