Searching for free stuff can infect your computer, hurt your online reputation and compromise your personal data

Searching for Free Stuff can Infect Your Computer

Cybercriminals are smart, and in their quest to steal your identity and your money, they can cause significant harm to your online reputation. One of their favorite ploys is to offer free stuff: MP3s, screensavers, lyrics, movies, ringtones and so forth. This article describes how searching for free stuff can infect your computer, but how to keep up with the latest celebrity gossip and download the coolest ringtone while protecting your online reputation and your digital privacy.



Be aware of the price of free stuff

In August 2010 computer security firm McAfee published a report on the increase in malware, or computer viruses, associated with digital movie and music websites. Cybercriminals always latch onto whatever is most popular, so it should come as no surprise that hit TV shows, celebrities and top 40 bands are frequently used as tools to compromise your online privacy. Since 2008 McAfee has published a list of the riskiest celebrities to search for. Just clicking on links related to these celebrities can have serious electronic privacy and online reputation implications.

Malware can affect your Web reputation and online privacy in two major ways. One of those is by compromising your computer, and the other is by compromising your personal or business websites.

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You’re probably familiar with the risks of opening spam messages, but as you become savvier when it comes to email privacy, so do malware authors. The threat of ever-more-sophisticated spam will continue to exist, and it will continue to hurt your online reputation. If clients perceive your email security and privacy controls as weak, they may be reluctant to do business with you for risk of compromising their own online reputations.

You face an additional online reputation risk if you own a blog or a website. Using information stolen from your computer, cybercriminals may access your website, placing it at risk of malware infection or proxy hijacking. Consequently, people who visit your site will be exposed to viruses, and Google and other search engines may penalize your rankings or blacklist your website. Your online reputation can quickly be downgraded to the status of spammer, botnet or malware host. Subsequently, your business will be either invisible to potential clients — or worse yet, you may be seen as disreputable.


Choose safe sites, and surf cautiously

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Antivirus software isn’t enough, as even the very best only block about 60 percent of zero-hour malware. One of the best ways to protect your online reputation from malware is to avoid using the word “free” in your searches. McAfee found that the risk of coming across malware increased significantly as soon as “free” was added to the search term. Conversely, searching with the word “buy” decreases the risk of finding malware. The list of dangerous search terms compiled by McAfee includes “free,” “screensaver,” “fan,” “lyrics,” “MP3” and “ringtone.”

Beyond the search terms themselves, it’s best to completely avoid sites you don’t know when searching for media.  Searching for free stuff can infect your computer.  Visit sites you trust: well-known vendors who may offer some free content but mostly focus on paid content. As a rule of thumb, if you can’t intuitively figure out the business model of the website, it’s probably being funded through malware or other illegal activities that could compromise your online reputation and digital privacy.

Also watch out for privacy scams affecting well-known websites. YouTube is a frequent target of malware attacks because of its popularity. A commonly used ruse is to post a video with the title of a famous song or event, and then provide a link that says something like “Video cannot be hosted on YouTube for copyright reasons. Click here to watch.” Subsequently, the user is redirected to a dangerous malware site.

If you absolutely insist on getting something for free, start with well-known advice sites such as, or Yahoo! Answers, which publish lists of reputable sites for music streaming and for finding safe, free ringtones. In addition, the Online Trust Alliance publishes a list of the safest websites(PDF) on the Internet. Starting with these preapproved sites will help you preserve your online reputation.


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Protect the personal data on your smartphone

Don’t forget about your smartphone, which is really just a tiny computer. The threat of smartphone attacks is growing because most users don’t think to install smartphone security software. A lost smartphone in the wrong hands can have serious implications for reputation management, identity theft and digital privacy, so at the very least you should protect your phone with a strong password and consider a phone-based VPN solution.

The same rules of smart surfing on your computer apply to your phone. Additionally, watch out for free apps that promise access to large collections of ringtones, movies, games or other media. It’s safest to get your ringtones directly from the carrier or the phone manufacturer, and these companies often offer promotions for free ringtones.

In the end, it’s significantly less costly to buy a ringtone for a few dollars than to risk having your personal information stolen and your online reputation destroyed.  Remember, searching for free stuff can infect your computer.

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