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Computer hackers targeting search results. Learn how to search safely

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Most of us have the common sense these days to be cautious opening emails from someone we don't know, or not open suspicious attachments.

But now computer crooks have found a new way to target us: on search engines. How does this cyber scheme work and what can you do to prevent it from happening?

Computer user Jim McGrath says his computer was recently held for ransom. While he was searching online, his computer froze and a warning popped up demanding he "pay $60 for a program to get rid of a virus."

Jim tried for hours to get his computer unfrozen, but it would not function until he paid.

"I felt I was being scammed into buying a virus program that I didn't need because I already had virus programs and I couldn't even run a scan on my own virus program," McGrath said.

Experts say Jim was hit by a "ransom-ware" scheme and it's just one way you could be attacked. Cyber crooks are manipulating search engines so their "poisonous" or "tainted" web links pop up in your results.

If you click on the malicious link, malware or viruses can invade your computer.

"You will be infected and you won't even know it," Chris Larsen with Blue Coat Security said.

Blue Coat Computer Security says computer users are three times more likely to get a tainted link from a search engine than in an email.

"People do trust the search engines and they are predisposed to click on whatever they see in the results, and because they're not aware it could be dangerous this turns out to be a very effective attack for the bad guys," Larsen said.

Blue Coat found bad guys don't only target people searching for top news stories or adult content.

They may try to lure you to their links while you search common topics like health and medical information, or samples of business and professional letters. Other topics include seasonal searches, like holiday recipes, decorations and costume ideas.

"Search engine algorithms have been designed partially to prevent cyber criminals from doing this kind of behavior," Chris Boggs, Chairman of SEMPO, said.

The search engine industry group SEMO says web sites do fight back. Google officials say, "we've built and refined tools over many years to keep malicious content out of our search results."

Others at Bing say "we are actively working on new filtering techniques for image search where the majority of these malicious links were found."

To avoid poison links, look at web site address endings. Experts say ending in ".com" and ".net" are usually safe. But if it ends in something you've never heard of, like ".cx" or ".tf" you may want to avoid those.

And if the text under the link looks garbled don't click on it.

Jim isn't sure what he clicked on to launch the ransomware. He removed the software from his PC, but wonders if it's still lurking behind the scenes.

"I worry that they still may have access to my computer," McGrath said.

Experts say if a link just doesn't seem right don't click on it. Teach your kids about how to avoid poisonous links when the search.

And of course, always make sure you have good, up-to-date anti virus and malware programs running on your computer.

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