University Websites Still Redirecting Users to Fake Software Sites

Four months after a security researcher identified educational Websites that have been hijacked to redirect users to fake online stores, many of them remain unfixed.

Education and government Websites continue to redirect users to malicious Websites months after the hijacked pages were flagged in a report. Major search engines also continue to rank those pages high on search results pages.

A Zscaler researcher identified numerous hijacked domains belonging to government organizations and educational institutions in a report in January. A quick check of those domains revealed that some of them still redirect users to fake online stores selling discounted Microsoft, Adobe and Apple software, Julien Sobrier wrote on the Zscaler blog on April 13.

While "most of the domains" were cleaned up pretty quickly, Sobrier found that at least 68 domains from that initial list were still going to the same fake sites. The hijacked domains include major universities such as Harvard, Berkeley, Oklahoma State, Brown, Arizona State, Clemson, and Purdue. The Australian government's site at was also compromised, according to Sobrier.

The fake software stores themselves have "not changed much," according to Sobrier. They all look the same, but are using new domain names instead of the ones Sobrier discovered in January.

In the earlier report, Sobrier had identified at least 75 domains hosting the malicious online stores, all looking slightly different but selling discounted software. The scammers used black hat search engine optimization techniques called SEO poisoning to bump up these stores on results pages for users looking for places to buy software. They also targeted multiple languages, so searching in French or German for places to buy Microsoft software would still present these fake stores.

When Sobrier first found these compromised URLs, many of the pages were running on alternate Web servers installed on non-standard ports, such as port 4577, 9765 and 5050. In this visit, Sobrier found that while some attackers were still using alternative ports, such as 8080, in some cases, the scammers have hacked the main Web server on port 80 and added the pages directly on the server.

For those universities, the problem has grown bigger, as this means the spammers have compromised the entire Web server at some point.

Despite Google's ongoing efforts to clean up search results from its results pages, these hijacked pages continue to be at the top of the results, Sobrier said. "It is very disappointing," Sobrier said, noting that Bing hasn't cleaned up its results, either.

The compromised URLs from University of California at Berkeley, New Mexico State University and Texas Southern University appear in the screenshot of Google's search results for "buy windows 7 pro" (without quotes). A search by eWEEK on April 18 resulted in links from Vanderbilt University, Wayne University and University of Southern California. On the first page of results, the first two results were from Microsoft, followed by seven clearly compromised results, such as the one from the Jackie Mason Show.

None of the compromised links are flagged by Google with the "may be harmful to your computer" message. The online stores themselves are still not flagged as malicious in blacklists used by major Web browsers or security software, Sobrier said.