Malvertising: Definition, Examples, Types, and How to Avoid It

The internet offers endless opportunities, but it’s also a playground for cybercriminals. One of the most sneaky threats today is malvertising. This involves placing harmful code into online ads, which may lead to malware infections, data theft, and other cybercrimes. 

A report by Safety Detectives says that the total damage from malvertising and other malware-related frauds may reach a whopping $10.5 trillion by the end of 2025. This shows how common it is and the need for strong security measures.

What is Malvertising and How Does It Work?

Malvertising, or malicious advertising, involves putting harmful code into legitimate online ads to spread malware or direct users to dangerous websites. Cybercriminals take advantage of the complex advertising system, and this makes it hard for even well-maintained websites to avoid showing these harmful ads.

Auto-Redirects

This method automatically redirects you to a harmful site without your knowledge. When you visit a page with an auto-redirect ad, the ad then triggers a script that will send you to a dangerous website that may contain malware.

URL Malvertising

Using this technique, harmful ads include URLs leading to malware-filled sites. These ads may look legitimate and harmless, but when you click on them, they will take you to a compromised site that’s been designed to exploit your browser’s weaknesses or trigger downloading malware.

Malicious Ad Cloaking

Cybercriminals disguise their harmful ads to pass through ad network security checks. They use methods like hiding the true destination URL or showing different content to ad network reviewers and regular users. This makes it more challenging to detect and block.

Malvertising Campaigns

This involves coordinated efforts to spread malvertisements across multiple websites. Cybercriminals create seemingly harmless ads that pass through ad network checks and appear on popular sites. Once these ads are displayed, they can infect many users. This is why staying informed and updated about the current malvertising trends is a good practice. Doing this helps in reducing the risks that are associated with these campaigns.

Malvertising vs. Ad Malware

Malvertising and ad malware both involve harmful ads but differ a lot in how they work and their effects:

Distribution Method

Malvertising uses legitimate ad networks to spread harmful ads and these can appear on any website displaying those ads. Cybercriminals insert harmful code into these ads to reach many people. Ad malware, on the other hand, gets installed directly onto a user’s device. This is often bundled with software downloads or phishing attacks. Once the malware is installed, it shows unwanted ads directly on the infected device.

Scope of Effect

Malvertising affects many users by taking advantage of widely used ad networks. It targets anyone who visits a site that’s displaying harmful ads. An ad malware primarily affects the individual user who unknowingly installs it on their device, which will then get persistent unwanted ads and experience system slowdowns.

Detection and Prevention

It’s harder to detect malvertising because it exploits legitimate advertising channels. This makes them difficult to differentiate from ads that are safe and harmless. Preventing malvertising can be done by using tools with ad-blocking features and keeping security measures updated. Ad malware is easier to detect with the help of antivirus software since the software resides on the device. Preventing these can be done by implementing safe browsing practices and being careful when installing any software.

User Interaction

Malvertising often doesn’t require user interaction to execute. For example, just viewing an ad can trigger auto-redirects. Ad malware typically requires some form of user action before it starts displaying unwanted ads. The most common action involves downloading and installing a harmful program.

How Do Malvertisements Affect Users?

Malvertisements pose serious threats to users by delivering harmful software and causing various problems. Here are the most common ways on how they can impact you:

Malware

Malvertisements often deliver malware, which can damage or disrupt systems. This harmful software has the capability to corrupt files, slow down your device, and open backdoors for further cyberattacks. You might not realize that your device has been compromised until it shows signs of an infection.

Ransomware

As the term suggests, this type of malware encrypts files or locks devices and, in exchange for their release, they will demand payment from you. Ransomware can spread through malvertising, and those that get infected with it may incur significant data loss and financial damage. The ransom is often demanded in cryptocurrency so it’s more challenging to trace and recover the funds.

Spyware

Spyware silently monitors user activities and steals sensitive information, such as login details and personal data. Delivered via malvertising, this software can track your browsing habits, record your keystrokes, and send this information back to cybercriminals without your knowledge.

Adware

Adware displays unwanted advertisements that are often intrusive and annoying. It can also slow down your device and make it difficult to use. Malvertisements often introduce adware and this can result in a frustrating experience as your computer, tablet, or smartphone gets bombarded with different types of pop-ups and banners.

Viruses

Viruses are malicious programs that replicate themselves and spread to other files and programs. They can cause significant damage to systems and may result in data corruption and loss. Malvertisements can carry viruses that infect a user’s device, leading to widespread issues and potentially costly repairs.

The Main Types of Malvertising Attacks

There are different kinds of malvertising attacks and all of them are designed to do one thing: take advantage of different weaknesses and trick users. This is why knowing the main types of these tactics can help you spot and avoid these threats:

Drive-by Downloads

These are among the most dangerous types of malvertising. It automatically downloads and runs malware on your device without your permission or knowledge. Its advantage is that it exploits weaknesses in browsers, plugins, or operating systems. In fact, just loading a webpage with an infected ad can start the malware. You don’t even need to click on the ad for the attack to happen. This is why regularly updating your software and using security tools is critical to protect your devices against drive-by downloads.

Clickjacking

What this type of tactic does is that it tricks you into clicking on something that you really didn’t intend to. This technique places invisible or disguised elements over real content or buttons on a webpage. For example, a malicious link might be hidden under a play button for a video or an exit button for a pop-up. When you click on these elements, you unknowingly activate the malicious link and this can take you to harmful websites or start malware downloads. It’s important to be aware and careful with every click to avoid clickjacking.

Fake Alerts

These alerts are malvertisements that show fake warnings or offers on your screen to scare or tempt you into clicking. Examples of these alerts are:

  • Your device is infected with malware
  • That software needs updating
  • That you’ve won a prize
  • That a free program is available for download

Clicking on these fake alerts often starts the malware installation or redirection to phishing websites that are designed to steal personal information. As a user, you should be skeptical of unsolicited alerts and check the legitimacy of any warning before you take any action.

Examples of Malvertising

Malvertising may appear in various forms and each is designed to trick and harm users. Knowing these examples can help you spot and avoid potential threats:

Pop-ups

Malvertising often uses pop-ups to grab attention. These pop-ups might claim that you:

  • Have won a prize
  • Need to update software
  • Have a virus

Clicking on these pop-ups usually results in malware installation or phishing sites.

Ads

Regular display ads can also deliver harmful content and it’s sometimes hard to detect them. These ads may look like regular banners or sidebars on websites and appear legitimate but the thing is, they contain hidden malware. When you click on these ads, you might unknowingly download harmful software or be redirected to bad sites.

Video

Video ads are another common tactic that’s used to spread malware. Malvertisers might take advantage of weaknesses in video players by embedding harmful code within video content. Your device might get infected without clicking on anything and just by simply watching a video ad.

Compromised URLs

Clicking on an ad may redirect you through multiple URLs before you land to the final page. If any of these URLs are compromised, your device can be exposed to malware. Malvertisers use this redirection process to insert harmful code at any point so it’s hard to trace and block.

Landing Pages with Malware

Did you know that even legitimate websites can have malvertising if their ad networks are compromised? If you click on an ad from a trusted site, it could take you to a landing page that looks seemingly safe but has hidden malware. This can then infect your device through drive-by downloads or exploit kits.

How to Prevent Malvertising

Malvertising poses significant risks, but there are several effective strategies that you can use to protect your devices and personal information. Check out these tips so you’ll be able to reduce the chances of encountering these harmful ads:

1. Use an Ad Blocker

This comes in the form of software, app, or browser extension, which is designed to prevent different types of online ads from loading on a web browser. This is how ad blockers work and this feature is essential in stopping malvertising. Poper Blocker is among the top Chrome and Edge extensions today that includes a number of useful tools:

Hide ads on YouTube

Turn this on so you can block video ads, and watch videos without any ad interruptions.

hide ads on youtube videos with poper blocker

Block ads on social media

If you’re always on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, use this to browse without ads.

block ads on social media with poper blocker

Block ads on any site

Enable this feature to remove ads from all websites (except video ads).

block ads on any site with poper blocker

2. Be Careful with Pop-ups

Pop-ups often carry malvertising so blocking these can prevent accidental clicks on harmful content. Poper Blocker can address that with its 2 pop-up blocking features:

  • Block basic popups: This stops new windows or tab spam pop-ups that may contain ads.
  • Block advanced popups (overlays): It prevents pop-ups that appear on the current page.
block popups with poper blocker

3. Use an Anti-virus

The great thing about antivirus software is that it adds an extra layer of protection by finding and removing malware. Be sure to regularly update your antivirus software to guard against these latest threats. Good antivirus programs can effectively detect and stop malvertising before it harms your device.

4. Keep Your Software Updated

Outdated software can have weaknesses that malvertisers can potentially exploit. This is why you need to regularly update your operating system, browsers, and plugins so that critical security patches are applied, which can then greatly reduce the risk of attacks. Automated updates help keep your software secure without the need to do constant manual checks.

5. Disable JavaScript and Flash

JavaScript and Flash are often used to run malicious code. Disabling these features can help to prevent some malvertising attacks. Do take note though that while this might limit some website functions, it greatly increases security. Most modern browsers will let you enable these features only on trusted sites.

6. Be Skeptical When You’re Online

Be cautious when you see ads that seem too good to be true, have spelling mistakes, or look unprofessional. Avoid clicking on suspicious links and check the legitimacy of websites before interacting with them. Promoting online safety for seniors, family members, and friends, and educating others about these risks can also help prevent them from falling victim to malvertising.

The Battle Against Malvertising Continues!

Malvertising is no doubt a big threat to online safety, but with the right tools and precautions, you’ll be able to protect yourself and your organization. Using Poper Blocker is an effective way to block harmful ads and pop-ups, and even make your browsing smoother. Additionally, regularly updating software, using antivirus programs, and being careful with unknown links can greatly reduce the risk of falling victim to this new cyberattack tactic. Stay alert and proactive to have a safer online experience.

Install Poper Blocker to block malicious ads instantly

FAQs

How does malvertising spread across websites?

Malvertising uses legitimate ad networks to spread malware. What cybercriminals do is that they create ads that have harmful code and use these networks to distribute them. Since these ads will appear on many different websites it’s capable of reaching numerous users. There’s even a chance that well-maintained sites can accidentally show these harmful ads.

What should I do if I suspect malvertising?

The first thing that you should do if you suspect that an ad is malicious is to avoid clicking on it. Immediately close that page and do a thorough antivirus scan (use the most comprehensive one) to look for any potential threats and remove them. It would be wise to do regular updates on your antivirus software and use an ad blocker as well.

Can malvertising affect mobile devices?

Yes, malvertising can also target mobile devices. They do this by using ads in mobile apps and websites. Just like on desktops, these ads can redirect users to phishing sites or download malware.

Is it safe to click on ads?

While many online ads are safe, it’s still important to be careful. You should use an ad blocker to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful ads. Be wary of ads that seem too good to be true or those that look unprofessional. Consider visiting the company’s website directly instead of clicking on the ad if you’re interested in a product or service.

Can malvertising affect my personal information?

Yes, malvertising can steal your personal information. Cybercriminals may use hidden harmful code in ads to install spyware on your device. This spyware can then track your online activities, capture your login details, or access your personal data. They can use this information for identity theft, financial fraud, and other harmful activities.

Get Poper Blocker and shield yourself from malvertising

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