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McAfee warns on poisoned pointers

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Links from internet search results sometimes point to web pages harbouring spyware, a study from net security firm McAfee warns. The four month study from McAfee's SiteAdvisor team on five major search engines concludes that 285m clicks to hostile sites occurs every month as a result of search queries initiated by US net users alone.

The investigation, which studied search results generated by Google, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Ask.com, found that even common search terms can lead users to risky sites.

Dangerous sites soared to as much as 72 per cent of results for certain popular keywords, such as "free screen savers," "digital music," "popular software," and "singers". All five search engines were capable of pointing users towards risky sites.

The study also finds that "sponsored" results - paid for by advertisers - are more dangerous than non-sponsored results. On average, 8.5 per cent of sponsored links were found to be dangerous against 3.1 per cent of regular search results.

"Search engines clearly play a critical role in internet use: As a convenient starting point for online browsing, they're estimated to account for about half of all site visits," said Chris Dixon, who heads the McAfee SiteAdvisor product team.

"But economically motivated purveyors of spam, adware and other online problems quickly follow where consumers go online, in this case directly to search engine results. Today, based on browsing trends, we estimate that US internet users make 285m clicks to hostile sites every month through search queries."

McAfee search engine study can be found here.

Having done the leg work for the study, McAfee is keen to point users towards SiteAdvisor, a service that catalogues and warns users about unsafe sites. The technology, acquired by McAfee when it purchased SiteAdvisor last month, automatically tests websites for a broad range of potential security problems such as exploits, downloads containing spyware, adware, and or other unwanted programs and pop-ups. This data is used to warn surfers if they stray onto a potentially dangerous website. McAfee SiteAdvisor is available as a free download here. ®

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