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Hackers Enlist Search Engines for Phishing Attacks

Hackers are increasingly attempting to influence search engines to misdirect users to spurious Web sites. Last week, software security firm Marshal highlighted the phishing-attack problem and the role of search engine optimization (SEO) in a blog post.

Users who are misdirected by the search results typically get hit by a fake security dialog box telling the user to download a fake antimalware program. The misrepresentations that show up in search-engine results include sites mimicking the California Franchise Tax Board and college basketball Web sites, among others, according to Marshal.

Spokespersons for search engine providers Microsoft and Google did not talk directly about what measures their companies take to ensure that search rankings don't divert users to malicious Web sites. Possibly, neither wants to give hackers information or divulge trade secrets.

One of the measures that Microsoft took with its Internet Explorer 8 browser is the addition of a SmartScreen filter that displays popup warnings when users click on links suspected to lead to malicious Web sites, according to a Microsoft spokeswoman. The filter is "URL-reputation-based" and runs a diagnostic scan of the servers hosting downloads to determine if those servers have a track record of parsing out malicious content. Presumably, users will take a common-sense approach and not go to such sites.

Google, for its part, has guidelines on what Webmasters should and shouldn't be doing, explained Google spokesman Nate Tyler, in an e-mail. Google expels Web pages from its search results when Webmasters use programmatic queries to improve search rankings. It also forbids the use of link schemes with hidden coding or the creation of doorway pages used specifically to increase clicks and move up in search rankings. Again, the implication here is that with golden rules in place, users should act at their own discretion.

Hackers also add bad links to other Web sites, particularly in the comments sections. When that's done to blogs, the practice is known as blog spamming. The links typically connect with automated tools that can help hackers gain entry into a computer.

Still, there's no way to prevent people from visiting malicious Web sites and no firewall rule for foolish behavior.

"Unfortunately, there is no Holy Grail product to solve this issue," said Paul Henry, security and forensic analyst at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Lumension. "Links to increase the SEO for a given Web page -- and, just as concerning, links added that direct users to malware-laden pages -- are increasing at an alarming rate. The most effective mitigation would of course be to make sure that your browser and any related add-ons are fully patched and up to date and does what it is supposed to do."

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others.

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