A network of more than 60 fake websites impersonting reputed media organisations were found promoting trading platforms and gambling sites.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

If you have come across articles from reputed news portals on social media sharing outlandish incidents or incidents of celebrities promoting online gambling or crypto trading platforms, you may not be the only one.

Threat actors are increasingly making use of fake websites impersonating reputed media organisations. These websites, run by content farming campaigns, could potentially be used to spread fake information, promote phishing, and dubious crypto trading platforms and advertise online gambling ventures.

Content farming entails the use of websites through a company which generates vast amounts of content that is often duplicated and low-quality. This content is written specifically to hoodwink algorithms and rank websites on search engine result pages to boost their reach.

In December 2023, an Indian Bollywood actor shared she had been unwittingly used to endorse a trading platform that was then picked up by the media. The actor later issued a statement on Instagram saying she had taken appropriate legal action. At the time, links to fake BBC articles stating the actor endorsed the trading platform were circulating on social media.

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Fake websites impersonate media outlets

URLs and links embedded within content on websites serve many purposes. Links can be included to improve SEO rankings, increase visibility and provide background information. However, these links can potentially also be used by threat actors to launch phishing attacks on unsuspecting users.

To make identification of scam links more difficult, scammers are now building websites impersonating major news outlets, like BBC, CNN, CBC.

These websites are being used for SEO rankings on popular search engines to promote online gambling ventures, and crypto trading platforms. They can also be used to sell online space for “press releases”, and “product reviews”.

Recently, a network of more than five dozen fake news websites was uncovered. These websites were found impersonating leading media like the BBC, Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN, Crunchbase, Forbes, Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Metro (UK), The Mirror, The Telegraph, Reuters, Washington Times, and Washington Post, a report from Bleeping Computer said.

The network operating these websites is suspected to be based out of India and reposts articles from these credible media and research organisations.

The fake websites repost existing news articles taken from the original source and publish them under “Admin” author accounts without any attribution to the original source. And since the credibility of the information being shared cannot be verified by search engines, these fake websites can achieve high visibility through search engines and social media posts before they are reported, and subsequently taken down.

The design and use of content from reputed media outlets allows fake websites to rank higher on Google Search, thereby increasing their reach.

Content farming is worsening the situation

Arun* (name changed), who runs a sports news website says that the low cost of hosting websites, and registering domains has made it easier for threat actors to run content farms that are then used to spread disinformation.

Additionally, the lack of awareness about content farms can lead to even prominent media organisations sharing press releases and product reviews with these content farms.

Role of social media

Apart from running fake websites, content farms also maintain Facebook pages for some of these fake websites and are suspected to have enrolled them as Google News Publishers, like actual media organisations do. This allows these content farms to not just widen the scope of their reach but also to make themselves more believable and trick users easily.

Links to the fake websites are posted on gaming forums and in one instance, reported by Bleeping Computer, they were found to have posted links on popular immigration boards where community members share experiences about their immigration journey.

To prevent this, users are advised to check the legitimacy of a web link shared on social media platforms. Most fake websites have telltale signs that can be checked to ascertain their credibility.

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