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When Danger Lurks in 'Heidi Klum'

Searching for stars on the Internet can take you to crooks instead

An appetite for entertainment can be your ticket to a fraudster's website that will try to steal personal information or inflict viruses, spyware and spam on your computer.

Type the name of your favorite celebrity on an Internet search engine and you're presented with an array of websites promising news or images of the star. Many sites are legit; others are run by scammers.

 See also: Many websites leak personal data.

Searching a celebrity such as Heidi Klum may lead you to scammer websites that could steal your identity.

An online seach for a celebrity such as Heidi Klum may lead you a scam website. — Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters/Corbis

Take "Heidi Klum." Throughout 2011, typing her name — with or without associated terms such as "photos," "videos" or "free downloads" — has resulted in almost a 1 in 10 chance of being directed to a bad-guy site, reports Internet security firm McAfee.

That placed the former Victoria's Secret model at the top of McAfee's annual list of the "most dangerous celebrities" to search for online.

Klum was followed by Cameron Diaz, Piers Morgan, Jessica Biel, Katherine Heigl, Mila Kunis, Anna Paquin, Adriana Lima and Scarlett Johansson.

In a three-way tie for 10th place were Emma Stone, Brad Pitt and Rachel McAdams.

Even "toys" are risky

Other entertainment-related search terms are even riskier. They include "free music," "lyrics," "ringtones" or "games." And with the holidays approaching, consider this: When security firm CyberDefender Research Labs tried searching online for Thanksgiving invitations, about 40 percent of the results were malware-laden sites.

A month later, another firm found that the simple word "toys" was among the most dangerous search terms.

It's a variation on scammer shenanigans that lure Internet surfers to poisoned websites by promising "shocking" or "secret" video of in-the-news events such as natural disasters or the shooting of Osama bin Laden.

But news-based scams typically pose a short-term danger, vanishing as quickly as public attention to the news event fades. With entertainment search words, the risk can be longer-term and have broader appeal.

Also, entertainment-oriented searches tend to list scammer sites in the first few pages of returns, rather than lower down where they go unnoticed.

Safety tips for culture vultures

So if you're a culture vulture — or just want to pass some time playing online games or planning a party — be a smart surfer.

  • Never click through to a website that you don't recognize. Be careful about links you get in email — ones that end in .exe or .zip could install malware on your computer. And keep in mind that even a message that bears a friend's address may have been sent by a scammer who's hijacked your pal's email account with a "botnet" virus.
  • Get clued-in before you visit a site. Several companies, including McAfee, M86 Security and PC Tools, offer free browser add-ons that can give you advance heads-up on sleaze factor for many sites.
  • Beware of "required" software. Scam sites may claim you've got to install a certain plug-in — it may have a name you recognize — to view videos or play online games. Click here to get it, you're told. In fact, what you get is malware on your machine.

    When in doubt, go to the plug-in's home website and download it there.

Also of interest: Free antivirus software to save you money. >>

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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