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The Hidden Dangers of Malicious Ads in Google Searches

Software copycats fool consumers.
Ryan Uliss
Contributing Writer
Google Ads logo mobile app on a screen smartphone iPhone closeup. Ads is a service of contextual, basically, search advertising from Google. Batumi, Georgia - October 5, 2023

Google’s search platform is under continuous threat from cybercriminals who exploit its advertising system to trick users into downloading malware-laden copies of popular software. Despite Google’s efforts to prioritize user safety and enforce strict abuse policies, malicious ads still frequently appear above legitimate search results. 

These deceptive ads not only pose a significant security risk but also challenge Google’s capabilities in maintaining a safe search environment. Recent examples, such as a fraudulent ad for the software FreeCAD, highlight the sophistication of these cyber threats and the ongoing struggle to protect users from harmful downloads.

Why it matters: The persistence of malicious ads on Google’s search platform underscores the critical challenge of ensuring user safety amidst sophisticated cybercriminal tactics. These incidents not only compromise personal and system security but also erode trust in the reliability of search engines for safe software downloads. The complexity of these threats, coupled with their potential to inflict significant harm, necessitates heightened vigilance from both users and technology providers.

  • Cybercriminals target popular free software applications, creating fake websites that closely mimic official ones. Examples include spoofed domains for Github Desktop, Teamviewer, and other well-known applications, misleading users into downloading compromised versions.
  • The malicious domains involved in these campaigns, such as those hosted at a specific Netherlands IP address, alternate between hosting legitimate and malicious content. This rotation strategy aims to build false legitimacy and target users in specific geographic locations.
  • Google has attempted to mitigate these threats, including the removal of billions of bad ads and the suspension of millions of advertiser accounts, however, new malicious domains continue to emerge. This ongoing battle highlights the difficulties in completely eradicating such threats from search platforms.

Go Deeper -> Using Google Search to Find Software Can Be Risky – Krebs on Security

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