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You think you’ve found the program you’re looking for, so you click the big, green “Download” button. You end up with something completely unrelated.

You’ve fallen victim to one of the most annoying things on the web: ads that look like download buttons. Why do these exist, and how can you avoid them? Here’s a rundown.

Why Do These Ads Exist?

First things first: these ads rarely link to anything helpful. At best they lead to malware 9 Easy Ways To Never Get A Virus 9 Easy Ways To Never Get A Virus It's a curious fact that the people who are most worried about viruses get them more often. With a little basic training you can completely avoid the problem of viruses and malware, so you can... Read More , or toolbars. At worst they’re the first step in a phishing scam What Exactly Is Phishing & What Techniques Are Scammers Using? What Exactly Is Phishing & What Techniques Are Scammers Using? I’ve never been a fan of fishing, myself. This is mostly because of an early expedition where my cousin managed to catch two fish while I caught zip. Similar to real-life fishing, phishing scams aren’t... Read More .

So, why does the Internet let them exist? Basically: because they work. Getting people to click on ads is hard work, but deception can be reliable. And, it’s assumed, anyone who falls for such a ploy is probably a good mark for any number of things, from unnecessary software to identity theft.

This means there are huge potential payouts to anyone who can slip such ads into a page – and if there’s money to be made, scammers will work hard to try to make it.

fake-download-buttons-scammer

Ads by Google

So yeah, these ads are a problem – and prey on the less web-savvy among us. Why do websites allow them, then?

In some cases, it’s because sites can’t find other advertisers. Torrent trackers, for example, aren’t exactly popular with companies looking to sell things – and the same goes for file sharing services. These sites place such ads to pay the bills, and apparently aren’t concerned with what that might mean for their less-savvy users.

But sometimes such ads even up on relatively mainstream sites, like MakeUseOf. Why do we allow them?

We don’t, but they show up anyway. A good number of our ads come from Google, but we don’t get to pre-approve what does and doesn’t show up on the site. And there are tons of scammers out there designing such ads, doing everything they can to make sure they get through Google’s filters. We report such ads to Google whenever we see them, but more keep showing up.

google-bad-ads

Google blocks millions of bad ads every month, and bans the companies that make them from creating more ads. Scammers just keep making them, and finding loopholes, because it’s profitable.

It’s an ongoing chess match between website managers, Google and the scammers – and it sometimes feels like it won’t end.

How To Spot Fake Download Ads

Google is trying to fight these ads, and so are website owners. Such ads keep getting through, though, so it’s important to know how to defend yourself.

First things first: most technology blogs do not offer big “Download” buttons, preferring instead to link to the download page of the company in question. If you see a big “Download” button, it’s probably an ad. Look instead for a text link in the article itself.

Still not sure? There are a few other things to look out for.

1. Spot ad boxes

Ads come in a limited number of sizes. There’s the traditional banner, and the square ad you usually see in sidebars. Here are the shapes to expect:

ad-sizes

If you see “download” button shaped like an ad, don’t click it. Google’s ads also feature this symbol at the top-right corner:

download-ad-button

If you see this “X”, beside that symbol, you know you’re looking at an an ad – not a download button for the software you’re reading about. You can click the “X” to report this ad, stopping it from showing up for you on any site you visit.

2. Hover Over The Link

There are exceptions, but actual download links usually point you directly toward the file you’re looking for. If you hover your mouse on such a link, you should see the filename you expect at the bottom of your screen.

download-ad-url

If you see “googleadservices.com”, as shown above, don’t click the button: this is not a valid download link. If you see the filename you’re looking for, however, you’re probably fine.

If the filename you see here doesn’t look like the file you want, or even a link to the site where it might be offered, don’t click the link.

What should your download look like? To review:

  • Windows programs are typically .EXE or .ZIP files, and should be named after the program you’re downloading.
  • Mac programs are typically .DMG or .ZIP files, and should be named after the program you’re downloading. They may also link to the Mac App Store.
  • Music and video files are never, ever .EXE files. Don’t download an .EXE if you’re looking to download a song or video.

3. Test The Button

Still not sure? Go ahead and click the button. If you see a website – or a file download – that’s completely unrelated, pull back. This is not the file you’re looking for, and it’s unlikely you’ll find it by clicking more ads.

If you downloaded the file, but still have doubts, use your malware program of choice to run a scan before opening. If you find malware, it’s not the file you were looking for.

Go back to the site, and look for a plaintext “download” link.

Fakes Suck, But You Can Spot Them

Any system that exists will eventually be used to exploit people. It’s a sad fact of human nature, and the web seems particularly vulnerable to it. With a little knowledge, though, you can defend yourself.

These tips should help you spot most fake download buttons.

How do you spot fake download buttons? Leave tips below, because I’m sure your fellow readers will appreciate them.

Ad sizes reference by NEXO Design

  1. Scott
    June 1, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    It is important to know what type of file you are downloading too. Windows has by default hidden file extensions for WAY TOO LONG, and it is a stupid default setting.

    CuteKitties.jpg.exe will look like a picture. And if the first thing it does when it runs is open a picture of kitties in your default image viewer, you won't suspect that it is taking over your machine at the same time.

    Unhide them. In Windows Explorer, hit Alt to show menus, click Tools, Folder Options, select the View tab, and UNCHECK "Hide extensions for known file types."

    This page has some script options for doing the same: http://superuser.com/questions/666891/script-to-set-hide-file-extensions

  2. noah
    February 14, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    whats so ironic is when i was reading this article i saw a real download button scam lol. heres the image: file:///Users/timfallon/Desktop/19501124c8b7c9146cc27a4aa4e0843f.png

    • Ron Ronny
      May 27, 2016 at 4:37 am

      u really tried to paste a "url" to ur pc?

  3. Mark Ng
    September 6, 2015 at 8:44 am

    I know right! And it gets even worse. Say you're trying to download a file called "UltimateHangman1.0.1.zip" then you click on a huge ad, and it uses that site's title and tricks you into downloading "UltimateHangman1.0.1.zip.exe" and that installs malware onto your PC.

    • Justin Pot
      September 6, 2015 at 3:43 pm

      I hadn't seen that yet, but this sounds terrible. Things just keep getting worse.

  4. daniyal141
    July 19, 2015 at 10:42 am

    Mostly these buttons have transparency on the sides just to make it look like it's a real one. My secret is hovering over them and checking the state of the cursor. Other cases, just can't be explained in words(I don't even know how I do it). Trust me, I have never clicked on an ad and never will. Heh...

  5. LA Jaskolski
    April 5, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    Try AdFender (www.adfender.com/), its a small program that installs in Windoze OS and protects all browsers in that OS. I don't think there is a version for Mac or Linux yet.

  6. Bill
    March 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

    I have to wonder just who makeuseof works with at Google -- and how much effort they put forth -- because other units of Google actively assist advertisers in producing and placing overtly illegal ads.
    -------
    From the article above {with commentary}:
    [T]there are tons of scammers out there designing such ads, doing everything they can to make sure they get through Google’s filters. ...
    Google blocks millions of bad ads every month, and bans the companies that make them from creating more ads. Scammers {ACTIVELY AIDED BY GOOGLE AD EXECS} just keep making them, and finding loopholes, because it’s profitable {FOR SCAMMERS, GOOGLE AD EXECS, AND GOOGLE MANAGEMENT}.
    It’s an ongoing chess match between website managers, { AND CONSUMERS VERSUS} Google and the scammers ....
    Google {CLAIMS IT} is trying to fight these ads, and so are website owners. {BUT GOOGLE HAD TO ADMIT THAT ITS EMPLOYEES AND MANAGERS ACTIVELY AIDED ADVERTISERS IN CIRCUMVENTING FILTERS DEVELOPED BY OTHER GOOGLE BUSINESS UNITS AND PAID ALMOST $500 MILLION TO SETTLE CHARGES}
    ----------
    The following quotes are excerpted from an ars technica but similar information can be found elsewhere.
    http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/01/feds-say-senior-google-execs-knew-about-illicit-pharma-ads/
    * A "federal prescription drug sting that ultimately cost Google half a billion dollars" to settle based on Google employees knowingly and actively assisting an illegal Mexican pharmacy import illegal prescription drugs.
    * "According to the US Attorney who led the sting, senior Google executives, including Larry Page, "knew about the illicit conduct" but did not put a stop to it."
    * "This isn't the first time Google has faced accusations of turning a blind eye to illegal activities by advertising customers."
    * "the operator of a "rogue" website said that he had worked directly with a series of Google ad representatives who, he claimed, were aware of the infringing activity on the website but nevertheless helped him optimize his advertisements to increase clickthrough rates."
    * "as customers' ad volumes grow, Google's human sales force begins working directly with customers to help them optimize their ads and encourage them to buy more."
    * Google has also been sued over illegal Canadian imports.

  7. K.K.VinayKumar
    March 28, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Just install AdBlock extension to remove all the ads & get rid of the fake download buttons.

  8. android underground
    March 28, 2014 at 10:48 am

    "We report such ads to Google whenever we see them, but more keep showing up."

    If Google infects your site with malware download buttons you should tell Google to fix the problem or you'll ditch them for another advertiser.

    If enough sites stop using Google ads they'll gonna fix their malware ad problem real quick.

  9. Paul-Wesley
    March 28, 2014 at 8:39 am

    Any download that appears right below download instructions or a "Start Here" button that I have clicked is automatically suspect. It's the placement, designed so that you will see it first. So, I look before I make any further moves ... and usually, yes, the scammers ...

  10. Marcus M
    March 28, 2014 at 8:19 am

    I agree with the previous postings... Adblock plus does the trick.

  11. Bert
    March 28, 2014 at 7:51 am

    I think am a typical user. I read this article, HOPING that it would solve my problem with Pop Up and download ads. Adblock seems ineffective. The rest of the suggestions are so full of mnemonics, I don't really understand what I am supposed to do. Can someone write a plain language explanation of How to get rid of these annoying, aggravating, time wasting ads.

    • Justin P
      March 28, 2014 at 3:01 pm

      There's no simple way to get rid of them, as I explained above. You just need to learn to spot them.

  12. Anonymous
    March 27, 2014 at 6:51 pm

    sounded like the solution, however when downloading the app, their website then asks for a donation - which is fine - but would like to see that it works before committing. Says it is download but it is not, looks like they want money before releasing... ?

  13. Chris
    March 27, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    The article doesn't mention this but many of these fake download buttons now flash on and off at you too. Dead giveaway to a seasoned surfer. Folks like my Mom may fall for it.

    Another issue is the bundled by default toolbars and software they try to shove down your throat with freeware. I know they need money, but every time I work on a friend's computer it looks like half the screen is filled with the toolbars. Gone are the days of clicking OK to everything without looking closely.

  14. Bben
    March 27, 2014 at 3:40 pm

    These should be illegal. They prey on people who just don't know any better. - If the maker of a product is reduced to fooling people into 'accidentally' downloading their product when the person did not specifically want that product - then the product IS malware and the maker should be prosecuted for fraud. NO excuse should be accepted for this practice. I have stopped using cnet and a few other sites entirely and recommend everyone else do the same.

    • Sonylisation
      April 3, 2014 at 12:20 pm

      Yes i agree with you about making it illegal. However trying to prosecute every bad person on the internet is basically impossible, even on a theoretical level.
      Sadly.

    • Justin P
      April 3, 2014 at 2:34 pm

      Enforcement is a huge problem with such ads. Like I already said: Google doesn't want them, most page managers don't want them, and active steps are being taken to try to stop them. I'm not sure The Internet Police could help much, even if they wanted (and if they existed).

  15. JeSon
    March 27, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    @PenguinBeak - I use Mint and still download stuff from the internet, and add custom repos all the time T__T

  16. Sreeraj R
    March 27, 2014 at 11:57 am

    nice article. Useful for people with less experience in internet world.

  17. MissMandala
    March 26, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    Chrome and ADBLOCK PLUS ftw. Firefox can crawl in a hole. I will not support it or it's anti-LGBT stance.

    • Kathy
      March 26, 2014 at 10:21 pm

      Firefox has an anti-LGBT stance? Pls provide doc. If I'm convinced, I too will boycott.

    • CJ Des
      March 27, 2014 at 7:50 am

      Their current CEO is the one who has an anti-LGBT stance. Mozilla Foundation itself has good LGBT policies.

    • k0rrupt
      March 27, 2014 at 9:56 am

      Not much to it. Apparently the new CEO might be anti-gay. Still no reason to boycott Firefox. It is open source. Call it whatever you like!

  18. KT
    March 26, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    I'm with you guys. Ad blocker/ad block plus and click the do not let some ads button/do not track me/ghostery. Any time I use a pc without those ad ons it doesn't even look like the internet to me. Long live Firefox!

  19. Saksham S
    March 26, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    Download and Install AdblockPlus

  20. penguin beak
    March 26, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    People download software from the internet? You're kidding me, right? All software should come from a trusted repository for your Linux distro.
    NEVER DOWNLOAD SOFTWARE FROM THE INTERNET!!!

    • Howard B
      March 26, 2014 at 7:32 pm

      Not everybody is fortunate enough to be a "natural born penguin," and, for the moment, gaming on Linux sucks.

    • Metalcored00d
      March 26, 2014 at 9:41 pm

      Online ads are irrelevant to which OS you use, which is the actual topic discussed here

    • Sonylisation
      April 3, 2014 at 12:14 pm

      Repository's are still on the internet, so your still downloading your files from the internet.

      However you download from trusted softwarehubs.

  21. bolt_858
    March 26, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    Just install Adblock Plus.

  22. tekky
    March 26, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Installing Adblock plus gets rid of almost all download buttons containing malware or ads.

  23. Rashidmuhammed
    March 26, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    That is really a helpful tip..

  24. Scott M
    March 26, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    This should be required reading for anyone on the net.

  25. Jerry
    March 26, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    CNET is almost unusable for downloading software because of the ads.

    • ChoiceD
      March 27, 2014 at 2:31 pm

      You know, it makes me feel old to say it, but I remember when CNET was a decent website and a good place to download from. Times change.

    • Godel
      March 27, 2014 at 8:30 pm

      If you use Opera to download programs from CNet, they will usually feed you the straight file without all the crap.

      Most of the extra junk is in the form of BHOs for IE or Firefox, so when they see little orphan Opera they just throw up their hands and send you the basic file. I browse with Firefox, but keep a copy of Opera for just this purpose (or you could just get your files elsewhere).

    • pete
      March 28, 2014 at 8:05 am

      I use `CNet to notify me of updates but then go to the program's site to update directly

  26. Kiwi
    March 26, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    AdBlock

    • Howard B
      March 26, 2014 at 7:31 pm

      AdBlock Edge + Element Hiding Helper...I use blocking rules like "*468x60.*" to block all of the usual "sized banners," plus other rules like "*/banners/*" for ads stupid enough to put them in a "banners" folder.

  27. Bill
    March 26, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Or you cold just block all Google ads - problem solved!

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