Your obsession with celebrities is helping scammers spread spam

Promises of Alexis Bledel content led the most people to malware in 2019.

Matt Winkelmeyer via Getty Images

Internet scammers will do just about anything to get a foothold on your home computer or mobile device, whether it's impersonating a work colleague, building fake websites for real products to steal credit card information, or posing malware as a legitimate app. One of their most tried and true ploys, though not particularly sophisticated, is exceedingly effective and involves promising nudes pictures or free episodes of shows and movies from today's top Hollywood talent.

According to a recently released study by security firm McAfee, Gilmore Girls and Handmaid's Tale star Alexis Bledel has been named Most Dangerous Celebrity 2019 as internet searches for her in these famous roles (as well as news of a Gilmore Girls reboot) have led more people to malware this year than those for any other celebrity.

"We rely on our WebAdvisor web reputation tool, which looks at some 16 billion websites," Gary Davis, McAfee chief consumer security evangelist, told Engadget. This Windows OS browser plugin prevents users from mistyping URLs and blocks access to phishing and spam sites should the user accidentally click on a bad link, redirecting them towards safer URLs.

McAfee looks at a number of different categories in determining its most dangerous celebrity. "We take the celebrity name with a popular search term that could expose them to a malicious site, like torrents, pirate streaming sites, things like that," Davis explained. "'Free' was a big one because, if you look at this year's Top 10, a lot of these [celebrities appear] on paid services. Then we rank those results based on what we find in our web reputation tool outputs."

More specifically, McAfee used the search terms: Torrent, Fix gamble, Free mp3, Nudes, Pirated download, Sledging, and Streaming. Combined with the celebrity's name, the company then scoured the internet for matches using Google API Console to search for popular mobile, PC and platform games. McAfee's WebAdviser tool then generated a score for each domain and URL based on its relative risk to visitors on a scale of -127 to 127 with higher scores indicating higher risk. Searches for Bledel scored a 10.6, higher than any other celebrity surveyed.

Indeed, Bledel beat out Late Late Show host James Corden, Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner, Pitch Perfect lead Anna Kendrick, and Lupita Nyong'o who starred in both Us and Little Monsters this year. All of those shows and films are currently available on one or more streaming services, like Hulu or HBO. But people are cheap. And given the prospect of scoring premium content for free, the potential dangers of viral infections on their home computer or mobile device can easily be rationalized away.

Of course, not every website is equally dangerous. If you go searching YouTube for Gilmore Girls clips, you're generally in the clear. However if you start clicking links in the comment sections of those videos, the ones promising access to full episodes or nude images of the featured stars, then things can get dicey.

You "click on this link and it takes you someplace else, that's where you start getting into the more nefarious sites," Davis said. "But for YouTube alone your odds of encountering something bad are not very high." The malware one encounters on these sites runs the gamut from run-of-the-mill keyloggers, rootkits, and backdoors to more dastardly bot programs which lie dormant in your system until they're remotely activated for use with a distributed denial of service attack.

Thankfully these sorts of scams are rarely targeted at companies, large or small. "Just because, by nature of what you're searching for, you're probably not looking for nude pictures of celebrities from your workplace," Davis continued. All modern society sincerely hopes you're not doing that either.

While McAfee did not have a demographic breakdown of the sorts of people who go searching for this illicit material, Davis points out that children and teens are often taken by these schemes. That's not necessarily because they were specifically looking for racy pics of famous people, but because they simply may not have access to the paid streaming service that the content is originally from and feel that torrenting it (at least, what they think is it) is their only recourse. Davis recommends that parents, guardians, and caretakers sit down with their young charges and explain the need for proper "online hygiene."

But that's just a start. Users should also make sure that both their desktop and mobile operating systems are patched with the latest updates. Activate your operating system's built-in antivirus protection and firewall, ie Windows Defender. Or, if you feel you require a more robust online security solution, pony up for a subscription-based service like Norton 360. Keep a copy of Malwarebytes on hand as well. This on-demand malware removal tool could prove invaluable should you ever slip up and get your system infected.

You'd also do well to use a VPN service to obscure your internet traffic — never ever broadcast from an open Wi-Fi connection — and pick up a password manager like 1Password or LastPass so you're not reusing the same login credentials on every site you visit because if that password is compromised, your entire online ecosystem becomes at risk. The easiest and free-est anti-malware method you can employ, however, is a little common sense.

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