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Google sponsored links caught punting malware

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Researchers from Websense have caught Google carrying ads punting rogue software that secretly installs malware on the PCs of its users.

Recent Google searches for Winrar turned up sponsored links that offer a "spyware free" copy of the widely used data-compression application. Google users unfortunate enough to download and install that software are soon exposed to a program that makes changes to their PC's hosts file. From then on, every time the users try to visit Google, Yahoo, and other popular sites, they are instead sent to an impostor site under the control of the attackers.

The operation is another testament to the resourcefulness of those running rogue software scams. Rather than relying on zero-day vulnerabilities or hard-to-execute website hijackings, they often find it easier to snare their victims through legitimate ads placed on Google or elsewhere.

"This raises some questions," Websense researcher Elad Sharf writes. "Is this problem Google's fault for not checking whether advertised links actually serve malware? Is it the miseducated user's fault for getting infected?"

Probably a little of both, but are we the only ones who find it ironic that Google's own anti-malware initiative imposes draconian punishments on smaller websites when they're caught doing the same thing? Websense, which first witnessed the scam last week, said the malicious Google links were still available when it posted this report on Sunday.

A Google spokesman said the company is in the process of removing the offending sites from its ad network. "Google is committed to ensuring the safety and security of our users and our advertisers," he said.

As a recent complaint filed by Federal Trade Commission shows, purveyors of rogue anti-virus and other software spend millions of dollars per year advertising their wares on legitimate sites - and go to great lengths to conceal their behavior. No doubt, Google isn't the only advertiser to be tricked into running malevolent ads, but as the do-no-evil company that's steam-rolling its competition in the ad industry, it's hard to believe these kind of links are still being sponsored. ®

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