Users Beware: Malicious Threats Increase in Digital Music and Movies

Add the word “free” to a search for music ringtones any you will have increased the riskiness of your search results by 300 percent, according to new research, “Digital Music & Movies Report: The True Cost of Free Entertainment”  by McAfee.

According to comScore, more than 177 million U.S. Internet users watched online video in June, 2010, up from 157 million a year ago, and criminals have taken note. Demand for digital media—music, videos, television, or other streaming content—is at a record high, and crooks have adjusted their tactics to exploit this trend. This avenue of attack has now become one of criminals  biggest revenue streams through the use of malicious websites, ads and video viewing tools, as well as an increase in hiding malicious content in music and movie-related sites, including fan club sites.

Summary of key findings and excerpts from the research:

  • “Free” can be costly—Adding the word “free” to a search for music ringtones results in a three-fold increase in the riskiness of the sites returned by major search engines in English. Translating “free” to the appropriate foreign language word had similar results in other native search engines.
  • MP3s add risk—Searching for “MP3s” adds risk to music search results, while searching for “free MP3s” makes music search results even riskier. Even when a consumer indicates that they want to pay for the MP3 in their search, results still send them to pirated content.
  • “Fans” attract dangerous URLs—McAfee has discovered thousands of malicious and highly suspicious URLs associated with fan clubs or comments made on fan pages, even if the comments are made via social avenues such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter.
  • Bad ads run rampant—Malicious advertising (where an online ad is used to distribute malware or exploit the user’s browser) is a common means of infection. For instance, on June 1, 2010, McAfee identified “malvertising” on that redirected users to a domain that delivered a malicious payload.
  • Illegal content sites often fool consumers—Sites that are set up to distribute illegal content are very sophisticated and may leave a user not understanding the nature of the site to which they have been directed. These sites often distribute malware and expose users to other risks. The criminal associations behind the sites can often be found by tracking the ownership of the domains and the relationships and tools that were used to develop the sites.

The chart below shows the number of servers hosting websites that direct consumers to illegitimate content. The blue line shows the number of active sites distributing this content. The red line indicates the percentages of sites distributing unauthorized content that are associated with the top one million most visited websites (according to Alexa).

Sites that distribute unauthorized content are not only numerous, they can also be highly deceptive. It can be very difficult for the average consumer to determine whether these are legitimate services. On these sites, users can rank movie downloads on quality, provide ranking systems, set up RSS feeds, and find links to legitimate websites, such as (The Internet Movie Database), making them more convincing to users.

The chart below illustrates the risks that consumers face when making the decision to use sites that advertise unauthorized content. While many users are aware that there are some risks, it is important to show how dangerous these sites can be.

Visitors may be exposed to pornography, identity theft, information theft, malware distribution, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, and more. What’s more, 12% of all known sites that distribute unauthorized content, represented by the color green, are actively distributing malware to users who download content.

Keep in mind that 7% of the websites distributing unauthorized content have associations with known cybercrime organizations. The sites often look very professional and attempt to lure the user with the idea of a “trial period” or even some nominal fee that is much less than what may ultimately be charged. Once the user agrees, they have to authorize their computer to access and interact with computers that are involved in a wide range of schemes—from money laundering to stealing credentials such as user names and passwords.

In addition, with this access, your computer is profiled—with all of its software versions, user agents, and any other data—and this information can be provided to third parties for malicious purposes. (This is often called “fingerprinting.”)

The take-away for the consumer who is tempted to get something for free instead of purchasing it is this: long gone are the days when risks were easy to identify. With the massive advances in cybercrime, illegal content becomes one more platform designed to attract and exploit consumers with sophisticated technology, leaving the user unaware of the risks to which they have been exposed.

YouTube and music downloads

In June of this year, researchers also discovered more than 700,000 web pages designed to look identical to YouTube, except that they were created to spread malware. They hooked consumers with the promise of a “must-see video” associated with the British Petroleum oil spill, the National Basketball Association (NBA) Playoffs, Harry Potter movies, and other popular topics. The spoofed pages even contained a YouTube logo.

When users attempted to play the video, they were prompted to download and install a program; clicking “OK” caused their browsers to be redirected through several other sites before landing on a final malware distribution site.

What we’ve learned is that users’ desires for digital music and media has opened yet another door for cybercrooks to propagate malware, redirect users to content they did not want to see, or spread disinformation. Furthermore, the growing popularity of social media, and the ability to send out mass tweets to friends, is only making it easier to spread threats.

McAfee also outlines Important Tips to Stay Safe

According to Paula Greve, director of web security research for McAfee, to stay safer consumers should follow these guidelines when enjoying digital media:

  • Avoid searching for “free” content. Instead, stick to legitimate, paid sites to get music and movies
  • Avoid clicking on links in banner ads on music, movie and download sites that aren’t well-established
    • Use comprehensive security software, to protect against the latest threats
    • Use common sense: Don’t click on links posted in forums or on fan pages
    • Use a safe search plug-in, that will warn you of potentially risky sites in search results and shows them the safe sites (like the free McAfee® SiteAdvisor®)
    • Realize that the more popular a topic, movie or artist is, the more risky the search results

If you are a music or movie fan, I strongly recommend you read the full report.



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