A large number of publishers – big and small – are monetizing their sites by selling space for companies that provide so-called native advertising, cited as more effective and engaging than traditional banner ads.
Indeed, on a news or entertainment site, users are more inclined to click on links and articles thinking that they are one and the same, not realizing that those are actually ‘sponsored’ and tied to various third-party providers.
Rogue advertisers have realized this unique opportunity to redirect genuine traffic towards their own infrastructure where they can subject their audience to whatever content they wish.
Case in point, we caught this malvertising incident on MSN.com, the Microsoft web portal that attracts millions of unique visitors. While clicking on a story promoted by Taboola – a leading global discovery platform which Microsoft signed a deal within 2016 – we were redirected to a tech support scam page. The warning claims that our computer has crashed and that we must call a number for immediate assistance.
Figure 1: Automatic redirection from click on promoted story to scam page
The fraudulent page cannot be closed normally because it uses code that repeats the warning indefinitely. Unfortunately, this is enough to scare many folks and trick them into calling what they think is Microsoft support. Instead, they will be dealing with fake technicians whose goal is to extort hundreds of dollars from them.
Decoy news page hides real intentions
Rogue actors typically start creating content just like any other advertiser would and build up a profile. After all, they want to appear genuine in order to game the system with ‘hot’ content.
What’s determined as hot can be derived from real or shocking news. The point is to do a little bit of market study on what the most searched for stories or keywords are in order to attract traffic.
In this malvertising example, if we review the sequence of events, we realize that the scammer created a bogus news site (infinitymedia[.]online) which does have actual content but is performing conditional redirects, also known as ‘cloaking’.
Figure 2: Traffic view showing temporary hop via decoy news site
A conditional redirect is usually a server-side mechanism that profiles the user and returns a particular response. For instance, if the server determines that a bot or crawler is making a request, it may in turn either deny it or simply serve the expected content (decoy). Similarly, if the user is running Internet Explorer, is from North America and their IP address appears to have hit the server for the first time, they may receive a scammy page instead.
The point is that it’s trivial to play a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kind of game and serve the content you want. The fraudulent advertiser did create various pages with impactful keywords (potentially for Search Engine Optimization purposes) and can also use those stories as a decoy:
Figure 3: Stories designed for click-bait
To get back to this malvertising incident on MSN, the user was conditionally redirected to another site (the tech support scam page), and never saw the content they were looking for.
Figure 4: The 302 redirect call from the fake news site to the scam page
To show that this was no mere ‘coincidence’, we can look at the ownership of the ‘news’ site (infinitymedia[.]online) and see how it links to the tech support domain name (4vxadfcjdgbcmn[.]ga). A WHOIS lookup for infinitymedia[.]online returns the following information:
Domain Name: INFINITYMEDIA.ONLINE Creation Date: 2017-05-23T05:14:50.0Z Registrar: PDR Ltd. d/b/a PublicDomainRegistry.com Registrant Name: bhanu Registrant Country: IN Registrant Email: email@example.com
A cursory review using RiskIQ’s PassiveTotal of recently created domains using the same email address shows a tendency for this actor to register tech support scams domains:
Figure 5: Domains recently registered by the actor behind the decoys news sites
Still, we don’t have a clear connection to 4vxadfcjdgbcmn[.]ga which does not have an identifiable registrant. Indeed, the .GA Top Level Domain (TLD) is comprised of free domain names and their registrant is… Gabon TLD B.V.
However, this particular actor made the mistake of reusing the same host server for domains he had created before. For example, if we take micro-soft-system-alert2[.]online which is registered to his email address, we notice that it resolves to 184.108.40.206, a server full of tech support scams and phishing sites, including the one used in this particular malvertising attack, namely 4vxadfcjdgbcmn[.]ga.
Figure 7: Connecting the fake news sites to the tech support domain
Further inspection of other properties tied to firstname.lastname@example.org shows similar bogus ‘news’ sites:
hollywoodreporter.online latestnynews[.]online theonlytimesnews[.]xyz uk-times-news[.]xyz unitedtimesnews[.]xyz 247breakingnews[.]xyz 247-breakingnews[.]xyz thenewyorktimenews[.]xyz
There is no doubt that this actor has very clear intentions and has turned high-profile stories into a click-bait lead generation tool for tech support scams.
Banner ads versus native advertising
Banner ads can load third-party tags that are laced with malicious content, not to mention promoting anything that is outrageous (regardless of whether it has anything to do with the current content) and is bound to get clicks. For instance, there have been many documented instances of fake celebrity deaths used for click bait purposes on Facebook.
But promoted stories aren’t necessarily that different (or safer) when they take the user to a third-party website that is in the complete control of an advertiser, good or bad.
Users should be aware that even on a trusted platform, they should watch what they click on and be careful of sensationalist stories that may be used as click bait.
We reported the fraudulent advertiser to Taboola which told us they had opened an internal review of this particular vendor. We reached back with more questions regarding how Taboola deals with click bait and fake news, whether they scan articles for malware or scams, and finally if they had a direct point of contact to report security-related issues. However, we only received a response for the fake news problem, which you can read more about here.
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