What Is Malvertising, And How Can I Spot A Fake Ad?

Last Updated on August 16, 2023

Have you ever found yourself irritated by the incessant pop-up ads that invade your favorite entertainment website? These intrusive advertisements not only disrupt your browsing experience but can also compromise your cybersecurity.

I once encountered this firsthand when my computer started exhibiting strange behavior after encountering such ads. Sadly, unaware of the potential consequences, I had no option but to endure the painstaking process of reinstalling my operating system.

This alarming experience prompted me to dig deeper into the world of malvertising, seeking to understand the risks involved and how to protect myself from such threats.

Malvertising is a well-known Internet menace that could compromise your device while surfing online. 

Malvertising can target websites of all sizes, indiscriminately wreaking havoc. This insidious attack method involves embedding malicious code within seemingly harmless advertisements.

Keeping safe from malvertising can be a challenge, but not impossible. Let’s get started!

What is Malvertising? 

Malicious Code Virus Hacker

Image by Elchinator

Malvertising is a cybercrime in which hackers insert malicious code into ads to attack the target device. 

These criminals generally obtain ad space on reputable websites, and even though it may appear genuine, the advertisements contain sneaky malicious code. Visitors can get redirected to fraudulent websites by these misleading advertisements that infect their desktops and smartphones with malware. 

In the past, well-known websites, including the New York Times, BBC, AOL, NFL, and London Stock Exchange, unintentionally featured harmful ads that exposed their readers to cyberattacks. Think about that for a minute. Malvertising may take numerous forms; however, its main objective is to insert malicious code into an advertisement as clickbait

Users who click on the ad become victims as malware gets installed on their devices. Scammers use JavaScript with security holes to conceal harmful code lines used to produce advertising. 

Read on to learn about the different types of malvertising and how you can protect yourself.

Types of Malvertising

Here is a comprehensive look at some common types of fake ads in malvertising these days.

Steganography Malvertising

What is it? Steganography is generally applied in malvertising attacks to hide malware behind advertising imagery. Steganography derives from the Greek word steganographia, originating from steganós meaning concealed, and graphia meaning writing. It is an age-old technique for hiding secret information in visual or written content. 

In this malvertising form, the malware hides within the pixels. Steganographic threats can stealthily conceal malware within tiny pixel clusters. Most times,  neither advertising networks nor users can differentiate whether it is safe or malicious advertising.

How to spot it: Malvertising can contain malicious code steganographically concealed in picture files. Antivirus software will scan your electronic device for threats or malicious inbound files. Also, steganographic tools for cyber protection, like Stegdetect, can detect hidden code.

How to avoid it: Security from antivirus software like McAfee or Malwarebytes can prevent such threats. Antivirus software will actively detect and protect from all kinds of malware. Furthermore, they will identify and delete harmful applications or files installed on your device.

Tech Support Malvertising Scams

Scam Hacker Anonymous

Image by Riki32

What is it? This scam includes deceiving you into believing your device has a technical problem. Such fake advertisements often deploy browser hijacker malware to interfere with the user experience. After you click the advert, a tech support scam will appear, urging you to contact a particular number to delete the fake file.

How to spot it: When a browser popup or advertisement tells you to contact them for help, ignore it. Never divulge your confidential data to scammers. Check the URLs when clicking on them and while conducting a Google search. Avoid visiting URLs that don’t match the search results.

Often, tech support scammers pose as a company to steal funds and private data from you on the pretext of repairing the fake issue.

How to avoid it: Blocking out advertisements at their source using a comprehensive ad-blocker is a quick and easy practice to prevent malware from reaching you through ads. It will stop legitimate and fake advertisements from appearing on your screen. Also, it blocks harmful programs from targeting your system.

Polyglot Image Malvertising

What is it? Malvertisers have recently started to use polyglot images to mask malicious ad payloads. Polyglot images are a more evolved sibling of steganography. They are not limited to one hidden load within an infected image. Instead, they can “speak” multiple languages, as their name indicates.

How to spot it: Watch out for fraudulent advertisements featuring prizes. Usually, scammers use polyglot pictures to include the JavaScript code that leads to a page with a fake reward. Often it conceals the malware and the code to start the attack. Polyglot image malvertising poses a grave danger, with no external script required to retrieve the malware package.

How to avoid it: Check ad networks thoroughly to investigate ad distribution routes and safety measures. Search for malware or undesirable code in an advertisement meant for display. Additionally, you can block malicious scripts and ads using a browser add-on like Chrome’s ScriptBlock or Mozilla’s No Script. 

Scareware Malvertising

What is it? Scareware is a social engineering strategy similar to tech support scams, except instead of connecting you to a fake phone number, scareware wants to alarm you into downloading phony antivirus solutions. By the way, the malware itself pretends to be the solution. 

How to spot it: Scareware malvertising scares you with frightening pop-ups featuring alarming notifications that your device has viruses. These advertisements could have typos, poor grammar or spelling, sloppy formatting, or unbranded images. 

Look out for signals that it is a scam by checking the URLs of the websites you visit for mistakes.

How to avoid it: Being cautious and avoiding scams can help you avert scareware threats. Always keep in mind: Don’t click if you’re uncertain. Also, get a security program like McAfee Security and install a popup blocker.

Software Update Malvertising

Computer, Virus, Hacker

Image by Michael Geiger

What is it?: Software updates malvertising offers popular applications and software updates. Once you click the advertisements, it installs spyware, viruses, or malware rather than the requested application. So exercise caution while downloading software from unauthorized sources like third-party websites. The safest choice is an App Store or the original vendor for an update.

How to spot it: Malvertising can be prevented by becoming mindful of such tactics, yet sometimes there is no indication that apparently legitimate ads are harmful. Furthermore, some advertisements can download malware even if you don’t click on them. So, remember that protection can be the cure.

How to avoid it: A robust security program like Norton or McAfee investigates all strange files and data for malware and will block them. In other words, your device is protected beforehand against malicious advertising.

Schemes and Surveys Malvertising

What is it? Fakeget rich soonads are employed by identity thieves to steal information from unwary consumers. The web has many phony ads for fake surveys and dubious reward schemes. These typically promise a sizable payoff, but in all honesty, you are more likely to get infected with a virus than gain a cash influx. 

How to spot it:  Avoid clicking on a commercial that promises too much. Such scams usually promise their victims bumper offers for finishing the survey, such as admission into a “sweepstakes” to win a vacation, cash, gift card, or coupon. Try to be cautious and never disclose your personal information.

How to avoid it: The technique of malicious code is to manipulate software weaknesses. Therefore, always use the latest updated version of your operating system to prevent exposure to ads that exploit previously fixed vulnerabilities. The same holds true for other software, including your web browser.

How Can Malvertising Harm You?

Clicking malvertisements may place your identity, contact data, and financial details at risk. They can also steal your data, alter or erase your information, control your device, and track your online movements. 

The following are the threats: 

Malware: It is a malicious application with the potential to compromise your device and steal your personal information. 
Ransomware: It encrypts data, blocks access to your devices, and demands a ransom payment. Due to cryptocurrency’s anonymity, cybercriminals often ask for it.  
Spyware: This software monitors your online activity, weakens your computer security, and invades your privacy.  
Adware: It hides on your gadget after displaying pop-up ads. Then it slows your device and infects it with viruses or spyware.  
Viruses: A virus copies itself onto computer programs, steals data, and corrupts the system.  

Protection from Malvertising: Best Practices 

Update browser: It is crucial to keep your browser updated since threats involving drive-by downloads may harm it. 

Uninstall plugins: Remove Flash and Java entirely from your plugins; most browsers no longer use them. Delete these plugins immediately to prevent security breaches on your browser.

Identity theft protection service: Use an identity protection service, such as Aura. Their identity monitoring and identity restoration services help you remain secure against cyberattacks. 

Antivirus program and ad blocker: Always update your antivirus program and ad blocker. Both reduce the threat of malvertising. Remember that outdated software loses efficiency over time.

Create a Safety Net For Your Online Security

With so much personal information exchanged online, protecting your privacy and data from cybercriminals becomes even more critical. What does this mean for you? Perhaps you should consider your steps carefully and integrate with the best service providers.

In short, it’s time to implement measures like firewalls, automated privacy protection with a VPN like Proton or Surfshark, password management tools like 1Password, and identity monitoring services such as Aura.

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