Speaking from long-running personal experience, many legitimate news outlets and businesses struggle to master the tricky techniques of search engine optimization in trying to get their content driven to the top of results on Google and other popular engines.
However, the scammers working to publicize infected Web sites, both their own and those they’ve owned, are having no such issues these days.
Roger Thompson, chief research officer for anti-virus specialists AVG, detailed the high levels of SEO expertise being displayed by such hackers in a recent blog post studying the attempted distribution of malware using headlines based on the recent horrific earthquake in Samoa.
Just over 24 hours after the tragedy has first begun to unfold, malware distributors had already begun to push their earthquake-themed attacks into the highest topical search results on Google and elsewhere, Thompson noted.
Even with teams of people dedicated to getting their legitimate results driven to the top of news searches, some of the largest news organizations in the world had their own stories playing second fiddle or next door neighbor to infected sites, the expert observed.
When considering that people often look at the company kept by URLs in deciding which content to consume, SEO is clearly playing a prominent role in helping some attacks find their quarry, he said.
“When we looked, we found [attackers] had five or six of the top ten results on the Google search results page, well above even places like CNN and The Guardian on queries like Samoan Tsunami,” said Thompson. “In other words, in not much more than 24 hours, they raised the profile of minor sites that they’d hacked to be higher than established, legitimate sites.”
Google does a pretty good job of weeding out infected sites as they begin to show up in their results, but with interest in news stories typically peaking immediately after they occur, the damage is likely being done in terms of end user infection, the expert concludes.
In a nod to another technically-loaded social engineering technique, in many cases attackers are also attempting to piggyback phony AV malware scams onto their infected news content.
When people visit the URL that promises them the news they seek, they’re instead told that their machine is infected and asked to download the fake AV programs, which are of course malware themselves, or download agents that will pull in attacks at some later time.
In terms of the sheer saturation of attack-oriented news search results, some 50 percent of the top ten stories turning up on Google 24 hours after the earthquake and resulting tsunami bore some sort of threat, based on Thompson’s research.
The infected results were beating out such well known news outlets as the UK’s Guardian, and CNN online.
And it isn’t just the rare occasion when something really big occurs, news-wise, noted the expert, who also pointed out that by merely blocking the involved URLs, search engines are playing a hopeless game of cat-and-mouse with attackers.
“They do it two or three times a week; every time there’s a big news event, these guys take advantage of it,” he said. “This is why blacklisting is an exercise in futility…everything moves around too fast. The only way to approach it is via real-time code analysis.”
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Matt Hines has been following the IT industry for over a decade as a reporter and blogger, and has been specifically focused on the security space since 2003, including a previous stint writing for eWeek and contributing to the Security Watch blog. Hines is currently employed as marketing communications manager at Core Security Technologies, a Boston-based maker of security testing software. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Core Security, and neither the company, nor its products and services will be actively discussed in the blog. Please send news, research or tips to SecurityWatchBlog@gmail.com.