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How a Simple Browser Search Can Lead You to a Scam
December 22, 2022

How a Simple Browser Search Can Lead You to a Scam

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Many of us click on the first search engine result that comes up, but doing so puts you at risk of being scammed.

Even though search engines have evolved immensely over the past two decades, there are still some loopholes that fraudsters can exploit to scam users. A typical example is scammers misusing search engine advertisements to direct people to deceptive websites that mimic the official ones—and in most cases, they succeed.

How does the search engine ads scam work? How can you identify this scam? Can you prevent yourself from falling prey to it?

What Is the Search Engine Ads Scam?

The search engine ads scam is a phishing scam where scammers run deceptive ads on popular search engines by manipulating search engine advertising. Although search engine algorithms don’t allow misleading ads to pass during evaluation, they sometimes slip through anyway.

Consequently, scammers gain a top spot among paid results above Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) for certain queries. Because scammers make their ads look official, they appear to be legitimate. In this way, they easily entice people to click on their ads and visit fraudulent websites rather than real ones.

Given that the ad format looks similar to that of an ad from the official company and that the ad appears above the official website in SERP, it’s natural for users to click on the ad, believing it’s real. Scammers use this technique to lure users to their phishing sites.

But how exactly does this scam work?

How Do the Search Engine Ad Scams Work?

When you use any search engine, you’ll see paid advertisements above the actual search engine results pages. Using them, companies can grab the top spot for specific user queries, and this is where search engines make the most of their money.

Scammers, however, misuse these ads to direct people to misleading sites. For example, you search for ‘Bank of America’ to visit their official website, but you may see a paid advertisement above their actual site. Naturally, you click on it without realizing it’s an advertisement, which could lead to a deceptive website.

If you land on such a deceptive website, you can harm yourself in many ways:

  • Scammers will track your personal login information.
  • Paying through a fake website appears as if you’re making an official purchase, but the funds go directly to tricksters.
  • Your credit card information can be recorded when you use them on a fake website.
  • You can be tricked into downloading malicious software by believing you’re downloading it from an official website.

And the list goes on and on…

How to Spot Deceptive Search Engine Ads

First, check the URL displayed in the ad. Scammers often display the URL of the official website in the ad but with a clickable link to the deceptive website they want users to visit. Sometimes, however, they mistakenly display a misleading URL in the ad too. So, if the domain name differs from the official one, it’s likely a fake.

Ensure you check the top-level domain, or TLD, as scammers usually register the same domain name with a different TLD to trick their victims. For example, instead of domain(dot)com, the URL might be domain(dot)ru.

If the display URL and its TLD in the ad correspond to an official website, check for phone numbers and other information in the advertisement. Then, compare them with the ones from real sources. If the data differs, scammers are running the ads. However, if the display information doesn’t give you any clue, it’s still best not to click on it.

If you want to investigate further, you can do, but be extra cautious. Right-click the ad and copy its link, open your respective browser’s private browsing mode, and paste the link there.

Following that, here are some things you should check.

  • Review the TLD and domain name of the website, the linked URL in the ad has opened. If they differ from the official, it’s a fake.
  • Does the URL contain random characters? If so, scammers may try to redirect you elsewhere.
  • Verify whether an SSL certificate protects the website. A padlock symbol will appear before the domain name, indicating that the website is SSL protected and the connection is secure. Or just check the URL has an ‘S’ in the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, i.e. ‘HTTPS‘.

Even if everything seems legitimate, you should take precautions to avoid falling victim to a search engine ads scam.

How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of a Search Engine Advertisement Scam

Firstly, you should never visit a website via an advertisement, even if the official company runs them. Instead, scroll down a bit, and you’ll find the website in genuine search engine results. Then you can visit the real website, knowing you’re on the right track. That’s the most effective way to avoid misleading search engine ads.

In case you want to claim the offer or discount in an advertisement, which makes clicking the advertisement imperative, follow these tips to avoid becoming a victim of a search engine advertisement scam:

  • If you are directed to an unofficial website after clicking on an advertisement, close it as soon as possible.
  • Take note of the URL for the discount page and open it separately from the official website menu. This way, you can ensure that the malicious script in the ad hasn’t embedded a tracker on your browser. You can even visit the genuine site and search for the discount.
  • Do not use your credit card to purchase on websites linked in the ads.
  • Don’t open ads in your main browser, especially if you’re logged into your accounts, like Gmail.
  • Scammers can easily make you download adware along with the primary software you try to install. Avoid downloading anything from sites you visit after clicking on an advertisement.

Help Protect Others by Reporting the Misleading Ad

If you encounter an advertisement that takes you to an unofficial source or seems like a scam, you should report it to the relevant search engine. If you come across an ad on Bing, you can report it to Microsoft, and if it’s on Google, report it to Google.

Google explains how to report an ad on its Google Ads Help page. Similarly, Microsoft shows how to report an ad on Bing.

Beware of Search Engine Advertising Scams

With some knowledge about how search engine advertising scams work, you’ll be able to browse the web safely in the future. Don’t let your loved ones be victims of this scam either. Spread the word and save them from losing their precious data and money.


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