How scammers use artificial intelligence to target search engine users

Rita Garcia Image
Thursday, May 30, 2024
How scammers use AI to target search engine users
Experts say even the top search results on Google and other search engines can be fraudulent. Here's what to look out for.

Whether you're googling for answers, looking for certain phone numbers, or even searching for a popular social media site, simple search engine inquiries can pose a threat with AI scams on the rise.

An expert who spoke to ABC13 says attackers are taking advantage of "search engine optimization."

Mitchem Boles with GuidePoint Security said attackers will buy ads online and make sure they rank towards the top of your search results, making it appear like a legitimate website.

He showed us a few examples, such as typing into the search engine "PayPal." A closer look at the results reveals some sites that are not legitimate.

"So the advertisements that come to the top, this is a little bit easier to find. That says, 'Sign into your account - Securely access your account' is what it states as, but even the ad itself has a website that's not legitimate," Boles demonstrated. "That's not PayPal's website."

You can see footage from his search engine demonstration in the video player above.

It's often recommended to check for obvious spelling errors on websites and in emails that might be fraudulent. But with AI, he says, the tool is so advanced, you have to take it a step further.

"There could be something as small as where a "U" could look like a horseshoe, and you can tell that this is a scam," Boles said. "But it's very hard to tell if you're not looking closely. And this is enticing you to click."

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In another example, Boles searched for "Quicken Tech Support" and the top result showed up as "sponsored." He says you can tell it's a scam because the sponsored ad doesn't actually link to Quiekn Tech Support's website, despite the fact that it labels itself as the "24/7 Quicken Help Number."

Here's how you can protect yourself:

  • Bookmark or save websites that you visit often, especially your social media and banking sites
  • Type in the URL yourself if you're familiar with it
  • Download and use apps for the companies you frequently visit

"If I type in just something like 'Lowes,' for instance, when I search, it looks like the legitimate site is at the top. But this is how it redirects you," Boles demonstrated. "So, all of that looked legitimate. And yet, unfortunately, this is the outcome of that very thing we just talked about."

In his demonstration, when Mitchem clicked on the Lowes search result that looked legitimate, it redirected to a different site that was obviously malicious.

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