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Ask Sid

Cyber Criminals Use Search Engines, Keywords to Draw You In

Here's what you can do to protect yourself

En español | Q. Is it true that cyber criminals tailor their ruses to target people who type specific keywords into Internet search engines?

A. It is. Cyber crooks constantly monitor trends and the news to figure out what the hot search words are — and then they create poisoned websites that appear on your search engine results list if you type those words in. If you then go to those sites and click on links there, your computer gets infected with a virus or perhaps turned into a spam-sending "botnet." In another variation of the ruse, the crooks put these dirty links on legitimate websites that are listed in your search return.

During the holiday shopping season, you can expect the most dangerous search terms to be the names of much-sought-after gifts. According to online security provider F-Secure, which operates a free online database that lets you pre-check the safety of specific websites, the following terms will likely lead the list:

  • Kinect for Xbox
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops
  • Jewelry
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Toy Story 3
  • Apple iPad
  • Susan Boyle
  • Toys

During the Thanksgiving holiday, several keyword combinations were hot targets. To figure out just how hot, online security company CyberDefender Research Labs typed various combinations of "Thanksgiving" and "invitations" into search engines. Of 50 search lists that resulted, 20 directed users to sites that had "malware."

And for several days following Patrick Swayze's death in September 2009, his name reigned as the most dangerous term on various search engines.

So basically, whatever is in the news at the moment is fair game for scammers — and a problem for online computer users.

But while trouble-causing keywords change, your defense against them should not:

  • Never click on links that you see in e-mail from strangers or on unfamiliar websites.
  • When shopping online, don't type the name of your intended purchase into a search engine. Instead, visit the website of a trusted retailer and search for the item there.
  • If you're buying security software, choose a program that has browsing protection that automatically evaluates the safety of websites when you go to them.
  • Run a virus scan on your computer at least twice a week, or daily for greater protection.
  • Turn off your computer when it's not in use; those left on all the time are more susceptible to cyber attacks, according to the FBI.

Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.

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