In a recent report, security firm McAfee, Inc. revealed how cybercriminals use popular search terms to unleash malicious software that can infect a computer and, in some cases, steal a user's identity.
McAfee researchers analyzed more than 2,600 of the most popular search terms of 2008 from a range of sources, including the Google Zeitgeist and the Yahoo! 2008 Year in Review.
According to the report, "The Web's Most Dangerous Search Terms," the 10 riskiest searches in the United States are:
1. Word Unscrambler
4. Free Music Downloads
5. Phelps, Weber-Gale, Jones and Lezak Wins 4x 100m Relay
6. Free Music
7. Game Cheats
8. Printable Fill in Puzzles
9. Free Ringtones
"Search engines are our on-ramp, our highway and our off-ramp -- they're everything for Web travel," said Shane Keats, the research analyst with McAfee who led the study. "The hacking community is very smart -- they can spot a trend as well as any trendspotter."
Just as pickpockets know they'll have the best odds of snatching a wallet on a busy city sidewalk, Internet thieves know they'll have the most luck by targeting crowds.
"If you're hacking for profit, the best way to make money is with the largest pool of potential victims," he said. "The biggest crowd is going to be around these trends."
After analyzing the search terms, Keats and his team found that not only are hackers looking for crowds, they are also attacking Internet surfers who are ready to take an online action, like downloading a ringtone or logging in to a site with a name, address and social security number.
For example, people searching for free music downloads are easy targets for hackers because they are expecting to download an mp3.
"They're primed and ready to take an action," Keats said.
To evaluate the risk associated with each keyword, the McAfee team looked at the search results generated by each keyword. Then they calculated the percentage of links that would take users to Web sites with unwanted adware, spyware or other malicious software.
The term "lyric," for example, had an average risk of 14.8 percent, meaning that nearly 15 out of 100 search results would take users to risky sites.
Among the most dangerous categories of search terms: online games, free downloads, song lyrics, and screensavers. "Work from home" searches were also among the most likely to attract scammers, Keats said.
Search terms involving online games were among the riskiest because online games often prompt users to install plug-ins or register with a name or e-mail address.
Keywords that include lyrics were risky because Web sites featuring the words to songs sometimes host links that take users to sites with unwanted pop-up ads or spyware.
Keats, however, recognized that the study is not without limitations. For example, the fifth most dangerous search, "Phelps, Weber-Gale, Jones and Lezak Wins 4x 100m Relay" was specific to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and will likely not be replicated in future years.
Still, computer security experts say the study highlights an emerging trend in cyber crime.