How to identify and avoid Google search scams

May 19th · 6 min read

Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|
Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|

Search and rescue: Protect yourself from Google search scams

What do you do when you want to research a topic or find a product online? You Google it, right? Google has become synonymous with finding answers to all our questions. It’s a company so often associated with internet searches that its name is used as a verb. If you want to find something, you Google it. But what if I told you that not all Google searches bring back true results and that some are outright misleading scams?

Get this: scammers create fake websites and ads, promote them on Google, and get trick people into giving out their personal info, cash, and, in some extreme cases, their identity. Yes, the online world isn't all rainbows and butterflies. There are bad people out there—scammers—and they're pulling out all the stops to get you to part with your money.

Ad fraud cost is forecast to reach over $100 billion in 2024

In this article, we'll uncover the truth about Google searches and how they've become a playground for fake ads and search result scams. Buckle up—it's going to be a bumpy ride.

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Google illustration

What are Google search scams?

So you want to find the best Asian takeout, spa, or whatever else your heart desires… What do you do? Google search it, of course. You open your laptop, type "best {whatever you want}" in the search bar, and voila, there you have it—a list full of options. But which one do you click? Most people would probably click the top search result, assuming it’s vetted by Google and popular among users. That’s how algorithms work, right?

Well, not exactly. You may have noticed "Sponsored" mentioned at the top of the page under the top search results. In other words, the top Google results are usually sponsored, meaning they’re paid for by companies wanting to appear first on your search results. So what’s the problem? The issue is not the paid advertisement but the fact that scammers are using Google Ads as a platform to catapult their scams. Confused? We’ll explain.

How scammers exploit Google search results

Scammers have found a new way to deceive us—right at the top of our Google search results. I hope you’re sitting down for this one — Scammers are actually paying for ads, using the trust we put in Google and top search results, hoping most of us won’t think twice before clicking. These malicious ads, disguised as legitimate links, can lead you down a dark and dangerous path if you're not careful. This tactic, called "malvertising," is more common than you might think, this is how it works.

How it works:

1. Deceptive ads: Imagine you’re searching for something important on Google, like logging into your bank account or looking to buy something specific. Scammers create ads (that appear like top search results to the unsuspecting eye) that look just like the real websites you trust. They pay Google to display these fake ads at the top of your search results, so they’re the first thing you see. You heard that right, scammers are paying Google to promote their fake web pages—aka scams—and that's how they get to the top of the search results.

2. Clickbait: So, you’re in a hurry, and you click on the top link. It seems official enough. But instead of taking you to your bank’s login page or the shopping site you wanted, you end up on a fake site that’s designed to trick you into thinking it’s legitimate. These websites look totally real—if you've landed on a fake bank login page, it would have the logo, look, and feel of the real site. Or if you're shopping for sneakers, it would look just like the genuine store.

3. Trap: Here’s where it gets even more dangerous. The site you’ve landed on might ask you to enter personal information, like your username and password. Or worse, it might prompt you to download something, claiming it’s necessary software or an update. In reality, it’s malware or spyware that can harm your device or steal your information. Sometimes, the malware can even start downloading automatically when you click the link. In both cases, if you enter your login details, credit card info, or anything else, it would be swiped by the scammers and used to steal your cash, commit financial fraud, sell your information on the dark web, or even commit identity theft.

Wait, why is Google even allowing these scammy ads to be promoted in the first place?

As a company with a market cap of $2.18 trillion (yes, you read that right—TRILLION), you may think - doesn’t Google have the means to stop these ads? This question has led to a lot of conspiracy theories. Some people think Google could stop these scams but choose not to because it’s making ad revenue and simply doesn’t care.

While there might be a grain of truth to that theory, the reality is a bit more complex. Google does invest billions of dollars in trying to spot and shut down these scam ads. They employ advanced algorithms, human reviewers, and automated systems to catch and remove malicious content. Despite these efforts, scammers are constantly evolving and finding new ways to bypass Google's defenses. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, and unfortunately, some scam ads slip through the cracks.

That’s where cybersecurity software like Guardio comes in. Guardio recognizes these scammy ads, and if you happen to click on one of them, Guardio will immediately block it, keeping you safe online!

Don’t let fake ads steal your info!

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How to recognize Google search scams

Staying safe online means knowing how to spot Google search fraud. Here are safe browsing tips that’ll help you spot Google search scams:

"Sponsored" labels: Always look for the "Sponsored" label at the top of search results—this indicates a paid ad, which may not always be trustworthy, and is definitely worth passing on.

Suspicious URLs: Check the URL closely; legitimate sites will have clean, recognizable web addresses, while scam sites often use odd or misspelled URLs.

Urgent or sensational language: Be cautious of urgent or sensational language in the ad text, as scammers often use this to prompt quick, unthinking clicks.

Website design: Scrutinize the website design—although scammers are good at mimicking real sites, there may be subtle differences in logos, fonts, or layouts.

Requests for sensitive information: If a site asks for sensitive information upfront or prompts unexpected downloads, it's a major red flag.

Use cybersecurity software: Utilizing cybersecurity software like Guardio can help determine if an ad or search result is legitimate. How, you may ask? Well, if you click end up clicking a malicious link or ad, Guardio will immediately block it, ensuring you're safe no matter where you navigate online!

The bottom line

Whether you're searching for the best sushi place in town, looking to buy a new laptop, or trying to log into your bank account, surfing the web safely means staying aware of potential scams. By avoiding search scams and knowing the signs of deceptive ads—like strange URLs, urgent language, or unexpected requests for personal information—you can sidestep falling into scammers' traps. Using tools like Guardio can also strengthen your safety by blocking fake websites and dangerous links. Stay alert, trust your instincts, and you'll become a pro at recognizing online scams every time. Happy searching!

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