Google top search engine at avoiding scams

Even search engines can get suckered by internet scams.

With a little sleight of hand, con artists can dupe them into giving top billing to fraudulent websites that prey on consumers, making unwitting accomplices of companies such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.



Online charlatans typically try to lure people into giving away their personal or financial information by posing as legitimate companies in "phishing" emails or through messages in forums such as Twitter and Facebook.



But a new study by security researcher Jim Stickley shows how search engines also can turn into funnels for shady schemes.



Stickley created a website purporting to belong to the Credit Union of Southern California, a real business that agreed to be part of the experiment.



He then used his knowledge of how search engines rank websites to achieve something that shocked him: His phony site got a No. 2 ranking on Yahoo's search engine and landed in the top slot on Microsoft's Bing, ahead of even the credit union's real site.

Google, which handles two-thirds of US search requests, didn't fall into Stickley's trap. His fake site never got higher than Google's sixth page of results, too far back to be seen by most people.



The company also places a warning alongside sites that its system suspects might be malicious.



But even Google acknowledges it isn't foolproof.



Some recession-driven scams have been slipping into Google's search results, although that number is "very, very few," said Jason Morrison, a Google search quality engineer.



On one kind of fraudulent site, phony articles claim that participants can make thousands of dollars a month simply for posting links to certain websites. Often, the victims are asked to pay money for start-up materials that never arrive, or bank account information is requested for payment purposes.



"As soon as we notice anything like it, we'll adapt, but it's kind of like a game of Whac-A-Mole," he said. "We can't remove every single scam from the internet. It's just impossible."



In fact, Google said that it is suing a company for promising "work at home" programs through websites that look legitimate and pretend to be affiliated with Google.



Stickley's site wasn't malicious, but easily could have been. In the year and a half it was up, the 10,568 visitors were automatically redirected to the real credit union, and likely never knew they had passed through a fraudulent site.



"When you're using search engines, you've got to be diligent," said Stickley, co-founder of TraceSecurity.



"You can't trust that just because it's No. 2 or No. 1 that it really is. A phone book is actually probably a safer bet than a search engine."



A Yahoo spokeswoman didn't respond to requests for comment. Microsoft said in a statement that Stickley's experiment showed that search results can be cluttered with junk, but the company insists Bing "is equipped to address" the problem. Stickley's link no longer appears in Bing.



To fool people into thinking they were following the right link, Stickley established a domain (creditunionofsc.org) that sounded plausible. (The credit union's real site is cusocal.org.)



After that, Stickley's site wasn't designed with humans in mind; it was programmed to make the search engines believe they were scanning a legitimate site.



Stickley said he pulled it off by having link after link inside the site to create the appearance of "depth," even though those links only led to the same picture of the credit union's front page.



The experiment convinced Credit Union of Southern California that it should protect itself by being more aggressive about buying domain names similar to its own.



Domains generally cost a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars each - a pittance compared with a financial institution's potential liability or loss of goodwill if its customers are ripped off by a fake site.



"The test was hugely successful," said Ray Rounds, the credit union's senior vice president of information services.



Stickley's manipulation illuminates the dark side of so-called search engine optimisation. It's a legitimate tactic used by sites striving to boost their rankings - by designing them so search engines can capture information on them better.



But criminals can turn the tables to pump up fraudulent sites.



"You can do this on a very, very broad scale and have a ton of success," Stickley said. "This shows there's a major, major risk out there."



Robert Hansen, a web security expert who wasn't involved in Stickley's research, said ranking high in search engine results gets easier as the topic gets more obscure.



An extremely well-trafficked site such as Bank of America's would always outrank a phony one, he notes.



Still, Hansen said, criminals have been able to game Google's system well enough to carve out profitable niches. He says one trick is to hack into trusted sites, such as those run by universities, and stuff them with links to scam sites, which makes search engines interpret the fraudulent sites as legitimate.



"I don't think we're anywhere near winning" the fight against such frauds, said Hansen, chief executive of the SecTheory consulting firm.



Roger Thompson, chief research officer for AVG Technologies, who also wasn't involved in the research, said search results can be trusted, for the most part.



"But the rule is, if you're looking for something topical or newsworthy, you should be very cautious about clicking the link," he said.



That's because criminals load their scam sites with hot topics in the news, to trap victims before the search engines have a chance to pull their sites out of the rankings.



"The bad guys don't have to get every search," he said. "They just have to get a percentage."



Consumers can protect themselves from scam sites by looking up the domain at www.whois.com, which details when a site was registered and by whom. That can be helpful if the web address of a phony site is similar to the real one.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine