While ads are a necessary part of the internet, not all advertisements are created equal. One of the most common kinds of fake ads are “download” buttons that don’t lead to the software you were looking for.
These ads masquerading as download buttons are a huge pain. Let’s look at why they exist, how to spot them, and how to avoid the ads.
Why Do Fake Download Button Ads Exist?
You might wonder where these fake download ads come from in the first place. They almost never lead to anything helpful—instead, they bring you to malware, junky software, or phishing sites. So why are they so prevalent?
The answer, unfortunately, is that their deception works. It’s difficult to get users to click on ads most of the time, since most people have become better at recognizing them. But when you’re already looking for a download link or button, you’re more likely to fall for a fake one.
Additionally, someone falling for these is a good indicator that they’ll be prone to future scams.
Why These Ads Keep Appearing
So we know why scammers love these ads, but why do websites allow them? In many cases, it’s because they can’t get many other advertisers. Reputable companies aren’t exactly jumping to show their ads on sites like torrent trackers and file-sharing services, especially because they’re often associated with illegal activity.
These websites have to pay their bills somehow, so they go with these ads and apparently don’t mind the implications to less tech-savvy users.
Despite all this, you’ll still occasionally see fake download ads appear on mainstream sites like MakeUseOf. We don’t want or allow them, but they show up anyway. Though most of our ads come from Google, we don’t have the ability to approve what ads appear on the site ahead of time.
Bad actors constantly play whack-a-mole with Google and webmasters, trying to get their fake ads through the system. Websites report the ads when they appear; Google blocks these companies from creating more ads, but new ones still pop up all the time.
How to Spot Fake Download Ads
As long as these ads keep getting through the system, you should know what one looks like when you see it. This will keep you safe and make sure you only use actual download links.
As a general rule, most legitimate sites do not use giant Download buttons. You’ll usually find the real download link as a link in text form, such as the download links at the bottom of sections in MakeUseOf articles. However, many dedicated software download sites do use a similar green button for downloads, making it harder to tell.
A huge giveaway that you’re looking at a fake download button is the AdChoices logo in the top-right corner. This is a regulatory program that many advertisers are part of, which calls for certain principles in ads.
If you see this icon, it’s quite likely a Google ad, meaning it’s not a real download. When you spot one, you should click the X icon. This allows you to report the ad and lets the service know you don’t want to see it again.
In addition, ads are sometimes marked clearly with Advertisement next to them, which is another telltale sign.
Testing the URL
Another way to tell if a download link is genuine is by hovering over it. Every major browser will show you a little tooltip with the destination URL of the link. If you see googleads or something similar at the start, it is not a valid download link. Typically, genuine links are relatively short and have the software’s name in them.
If you’re really not sure, you can use a web service to see if the link is safe, then click the button to test it if it seems safe to proceed. Pay attention to what happens next—does it start a file download? If so, look at the file name and extension.
Windows software is most often packaged as an EXE or ZIP file. Mac programs are usually in DMG or ZIP format (though you can find a good bit of Mac software on the safe App Store). In both cases, the downloaded installer should have the name of the program you’re looking for. Files with generic names like AppDownloader.exe will typically bundle in extra garbage.
Should you see a load of additional ads or a completely unrelated website when you click a button, get out. That’s not the site you’re looking for. And if you’re really not sure whether the file you downloaded is trustworthy, scan it with your antivirus. You may also want to get a second opinion using Malwarebytes or a web scanner like VirusTotal.
Download From Safe Sites Instead
Now you should know how to identify fake downloads when you see them. This will come in handy when using filesharing sites, where you often don’t have another option for downloading what you’re after.
But in many cases, it’s possible to bypass the above concerns and avoid ads meant to trick you. You simply need to download from a reputable service.
If you’re looking to install a well-known program, one of the best places to do so is through the official website. This is much less likely to have fake download buttons (and any bundled junk) than random redistributors. Simply Googling “download [app]” will provide a box linking to the official page in many cases.
Otherwise, take a look at our list of the safest sites for installing Windows software. These will let you grab popular apps without having to worry about clicking on fake ads. Likewise, make sure you stay away from dangerous software download services.
Avoiding Fake Downloads Is Crucial
As long as these fake ads remain profitable for scammers, we’ll probably never see the end of them. In most cases, you should avoid download from sites with loads of fake ads if you can, because they’re probably not trustworthy. Whether by using a more reliable site or cutting through the deception, these tips will help you dodge the fakes.
Counterfeit download buttons aren’t the only shams to watch out for online. See our guide to spotting other online fakes so you’re prepared for anything.