Knowing their audience is something scammers excel at, and for very good reason. This is particularly true for tech support scammers whose prime targets are seniors.
By understanding what retirees are searching for and abusing various online platforms, crooks can precisely go after the demographic they are interested in and lure them onto sites that they control.
We have been observing a specific malvertising campaign via Google ads aimed at seniors. The threat actor is creating hundreds of fake websites via the Weebly platform to host decoy content to fool search engines and crawlers while redirecting victims to a fake computer alert.
Based on our analysis, this particular scheme started sometime in the summer of 2022 but has drastically increased in prevalence in the past month. While we have been sharing details with affected parties privately for a few weeks, we are now exposing what we know.
Popular search terms
Malvertising, or the use of ads to deliver malicious content, is not something new. Yet, over the years various threat actors have used it for different purposes.
It is a cost effective and efficient way to reach targets and then monetize those with a certain payload that can be anything from malicious software or plain old scams. But we don’t tend to hear about the latter as much because the impact of scams may be harder to quantify.
In talking to victims, you will often hear them describe that they were just looking up for something and clicked somewhere when all the sudden this or that happened.
As we saw an increase in our telemetry for tech support scam pages, we decided to replicate some of those searches and came up with keywords we thought the senior/retired audience might use often. In order to maximize our chances of identifying the campaign we used a real machine and prepared with a specific profile.
By far, anything related to recipes and cooking is a popular search query. We had previously identified another malvertising campaign using this same theme.
We also tried to look for games such as Solitaire:
And of course, we couldn’t do without checking on the weather:
While the links for the sponsored sites may look legitimate, they aren’t. The problem is that unless you are the intended victim, you will only see the clean content. It matters because crawlers and other ad quality check tools may validate the advertiser and allow the ad to be reached by a large audience.
Each site is very simple and contains content that was stolen from somewhere else and put together hastily.
The threat actor has been creating hundreds of those websites via the Weebly platform which they are abusing. Some days, we saw an average of 10 new Weebly hostnames used by the scammers.
As mentioned earlier, it is important for the scammers to stay under the radar and make it as though these webpages are legitimate. They can do this easily by using a technique known as cloaking.
Cloaking is simply showing different content based on a target audience and being able to hide the payload from some non desirable visitors (i.e. web crawlers, security researchers).
The scammers did this in various ways, some quite simple (user-agent and IP check) but they also paid for a professional cloaking service.
The cloaker API will return a response that contains two different links:
The “safe_page” which is the URL for the decoy Weebly site
The “money_page” which is the URL to make money from
In this case the money page is a URL belonging to Digital Ocean and hosting a tech support scam page.
Tech support scam
Most scammers will use a template for the tech support scam page which is customized for the operating system and browser the victim is running. This scheme is adapted for both Windows and Mac, supporting the Chrome, Opera, Safari and Firefox browsers.
In this case they are also abusing a browser feature that remaps keystrokes when a page is in fullscreen by targeting the navigator.keyboard.lock API. What this means in practical terms is that the user will not be able to exit from the fullscreen page unless they press and hold the Escape key for several seconds. Many people will panic and call the phone number on the screen, only to fall in the hands of scammers and lose hundreds, sometimes even thousands of dollars.
Protection from malvertising attacks
Malvertising can come in different forms and ad formats, and the same can be said about the payloads that are distributed.
As we saw earlier this year, clicking on the top ad for a software download doesn’t always get you what you wanted, in fact it can infect your computer with malware. Threat actors are very good at impersonating legitimate brands and setting convincing websites.
We have reported and continue to report this malvertising campaign to Google and Block Inc. (Weebly).
We always recommend using a layered approach to security and for malvertising you will need web protection combined with anti-malware protection. Malwarebytes Premium for consumers and Endpoint Protection for businesses provide real-time protection against such threats.