The Internet is still not safe, and the risks may lie in unexpected places. While companies like Google continue to ramp up their defenses, a surprising number of nefarious websites still slip through.
Google last week released numbers that revealed the problem. In 2011, Google suspended 824,000 advertising accounts that violated its terms of service banning misleading claims, ad spam and malware -- more than three times the number of accounts in 2010.
"We find that there are relatively few malicious players, who make multiple attempts to bypass our defenses to defraud users," Google said in a blog post. "As we get better and faster at catching these advertisers, they redouble their efforts and create more accounts at an even faster rate."
Google uses both automated tools and human raters to find rule breakers. Last year, Google halved the proportion of "bad ads," it said.
But there are plenty of sites that can wreak havoc, and the numbers are growing. Symantec, an Internet security firm, recently released its 2011 Threat Landscape report. Web-based attacks increased by 36 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year's attacks.
While we've been warned about the dangers of visiting porn sites, other types of sites are far more likely to be infected with malware, according to the report. For instance, about 20 percent of blogs host malware. Here's the full list:
Top 10 Most Dangerous Types of Websites
1. Blogs, 19.8 percent
2. Web hosting, 15.6 percent
3. Business and economy, 10 percent
4. Shopping, 7.7 percent
5. Education and reference, 6.9 percent
6. Technology, computer, Internet, 6.9 percent
7. Entertainment and music, 3.8 percent
8. Automotive, 3.8 percent
9. Health and medicine, 2.7 percent
10. Pornography, 2.4 percent
Avoiding all of these types of sites would leave you with very little to enjoy. As for porn coming in last, Symantec says that this is because pornographic website owners already make money from the Internet and, as a result, have a vested interest in keeping their sites malware-free -- it's not good for repeat business.
The most common type of attack in 2011 was the drive-by, which refers to a user visiting a site and leaving with malware -- and having no idea that an attack has occurred. Even legitimate sites can be infected with malware and pass them on to your computer, so avoiding unknown sites is not enough.
The most important thing you can do to protect yourself and your computer is to keep your antivirus software, browsers and add-ons up to date. Adobe Acrobat is the most commonly outdated plugin and one that's heavily exploited by malware makers. When you see a message on your screen to update an installed program, don't procrastinate -- take a minute to initiate the download.
Mac users are not immune to malware and other threats. The first known Mac-based bot network emerged in 2009, and 2011 saw a number of new threats for Mac OS X, including trojans like MacDefender, a fake antivirus program. Further, malware makers have devised so-called cross-platform programs that work on Macs as well as Windows-based computers. Install and maintain antivirus software, regardless of the system you use.
QR code caution
You may have seen QR codes on an ad in a magazine -- the print version -- or even on a product like a Coke can. Similar to a barcode that's part of the labeling on most items we buy, QR codes promise offers, videos and other tempting content on a website. You take a picture of it with your cellphone and a link opens on your phone's browser to the site. It's fast, convenient and dangerous.
Symantec said that spammers are already using QR codes to promote black-market pharmaceuticals. Malware authors have used the codes to install a trojan on Android phones. It can be almost impossible to determine whether or not a QR code is safe. If you'd like to use them, make sure that the QR reader installed on your phone can check a site's "reputation" before you visit it. Otherwise, steer clear.
Ogden-based TopTen REVIEWS.com guides consumers by comparing products in the world of technology, including electronics, software and Web services. Have a question for TopTenREVIEWS? Email Leslie Meredith at firstname.lastname@example.org.