One of the easiest ways to get scammed or pick up malware these days is through something called “clickbait.” Like the name sounds, clickbait is an internet device designed to catch our attention and cause us to click on it to find out more information. Often, this scourge (like the one shown here) comes in the form of what looks to be an advertisement or news article. This practice is also known as "malvertising."
“Priscilla, 72, Admits What Elvis Used to…”
“iPhone Users, Don’t Forget to Do This By Monday!”
“7 Ways to Retire Comfortably With $500,000”
“Acclaimed Doctor Says Do This One Thing Every Day. Loose Belly Fat Now!”
“Where Are These Stars of the 1970s Now? Number 5 Will Shock You!”
The sad part is that you don’t even have to go to a nefarious website to get stung. A large number of good websites have these bad ads, too.
For the sake of this example, let’s take ordinary, reputable news sites, such as MLive, CNN, or the Weather Channel. These organizations make money by selling a lot of advertising on their sites. In order to bring in the most revenue, they contract out the selling of ads to a sophisticated network of advertising tech companies, which in turn place millions of ads on millions of websites. In fact, it’s these ad tech firms that decide who sees what ads on which websites—not MLive, CNN, or the Weather Channel.
The technical term is called “programmatic advertising.” In this system, advertising tech companies use computers to automate a lightning-fast auction process whereby advertisers bid on available ad spaces on websites. The software programs also ensure that advertisers can target specific ads to specific groups of users. Ever wonder how you see a bunch of ads for cars after doing a Google search for one?
The benefit (and, here, I mean only to the websites and advertisers) is that advertisers get to show the ads they want to the people they want, and websites can keep their ad spaces full.
The problem (and, here, I mean only to you the user) is that quite a few odious ads make their way to good websites. With the millions of transactions happening rapidly in the auction process, the advertising tech companies have their hands full. It’s their responsibility to prevent bad ads, but it’s very difficult to keep a few from slipping through the cracks.
What can you do?
The scammers try hard to get your attention. Their ads look very enticing, or often look like real news articles (even I really wanted to click on the picture of the submarine). To keep yourself from getting burned, I recommend a few things:
•Before clicking on a news story (particularly those at the end of a legitimate news article or in the margin) look for words in faint text that say things like “ad,” “sponsored,” or “from around the web.”
•If the ad or headline seems out of character for the legit website you’re on, it’s likely trying to sell you something or scam you.
•To prevent malware, download Malwarebytes and add their browser guard.
•If one of those scary alerts pops up telling you that your computer is infected and you need to call a phone number, don't panic–you're not really infected yet. It is a scammer trying to get you to, but all you need to do is quit your browser (Chrome, Safari, etc.).
•Don’t click on ads. Just don’t. Why play Russian Roulette?
Stay Safe Out There
I know it seems like navigating the internet just gets harder and harder, but if you stay vigilant you can keep yourself out of trouble. Now that you know some of the telltale signs to look out for, and understand that even good sites can have bad ads, you can now read a news article or look up the weather without being the fish that gets caught by clickbait.