The most dangerous and safest Web searches

Some of the riskiest searches on the Internet today are associated either with finding items for free, such as music or screensavers, or looking for work that can be done from home, according McAfee. Search categories like these are used to lure unsuspecting consumers to their Web sites. Cybercriminals are often able to persuade searchers to download files carrying malicious software that can cause consumers to expose their personal and financial data.

McAfee’s report on The Web’s Most Dangerous Search Terms describes how cybercriminals maximize their profits by seeking the largest pool of possible victims with popular search terms about current events, gadgets and celebrities. During the recession, McAfee has observed a growing number of malicious search results targeted at people who want to save money or earn extra income working at home.

“Cybercriminals are smart,” said Jeff Green, senior vice president of McAfee Product Development & Avert Labs. “Like sharks smelling blood in the water, hackers will create related Web sites laden with adware and malware whenever a particular topic increases in popularity. Unsuspecting consumers are then tricked into downloading malicious software that leads them to blindly hand over their personal assets to cybercriminals.”

McAfee researched more than 2,600 popular keywords (as defined by Google Zeitgeist, Yahoo! Buzz and others sources) to assess the degree of risk for each. Maximum Risk refers to the maximum percentage of risky sites a user might encounter on a single page of search results.

As defined by McAfee, the riskiest set of keyword variations was “screensavers” with a maximum risk of 59.1 percent. Nearly six out of the top 10 search results for “screensavers” contain malware. One of the single riskiest search terms in the world is “lyrics,” with a maximum risk factor of one in two. Surprisingly, searches using the word Viagra, a popular keyword that is also common in spam e-mail messages, yielded the fewest risky sites. Searches with the safest risk profile included health-related terms and searches about the current economic crisis.

Consumers looking to save money, and/or searching for means of additional income, should take note: searchers clicking on results that contain the word “free” have a 21.3 percent chance of infecting their PCs with online threats, such as spyware, spam, phishing, adware, viruses and other malware. “Work from home” searches can be as much as four times riskier than the average risk for all popular terms.

Outside of the U.S., popular keyword categories were often significantly riskier than those popular in the U.S. Fourteen countries had keyword categories that exposed users to a higher maximum risk than what McAfee identified on average, including the Czech Republic (14.2 percent) and Brazil (12.1 percent). And 12 countries were overall riskier than the average, including Mexico (1.9 percent) and India (1.8 percent). This could be early evidence of a troubling new trend of scammers targeting non-U.S. victims.

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