How to Avoid Fake Ads Disguised as Fake Download Links
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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

FileHippo Download Page

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

Fake Download Button on Page

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 7 Quick Sites That Let You Check If a Link Is Safe 7 Quick Sites That Let You Check If a Link Is Safe Before clicking a link, use these link checkers to check that it doesn't lead to malware or other security threats. Read More , 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.

Google Download Firefox Link

Otherwise, take a look at our list of the safest sites for installing Windows software The Safest Free Software Download Sites for Windows The Safest Free Software Download Sites for Windows Many software download sites are loaded with malware. We compiled websites you can trust when you need a free software download. Read More . 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 How to Spot 7 Online Fakes Used by Scammers How to Spot 7 Online Fakes Used by Scammers You can't trust everything you see online. Here are seven commonly faked elements online and some advice for identifying them. Read More so you’re prepared for anything.

Explore more about: Download Management, Malware, Online Advertising, Online Security, Phishing, Scams.

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  1. Tracy Dryden
    July 18, 2019 at 3:40 pm

    I've even seen these buttons on the web sites of the authors of a program! I avoid them like the plague.

  2. 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

  3. 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?

  4. Anonymous
    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.

  5. Anonymous
    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...

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    • Michael Scott
      August 22, 2019 at 2:50 pm

      Thumbs waaaay up!

    • Michael Scott
      August 22, 2019 at 2:50 pm

      Thumbs way up.

    • Michael Scott
      August 22, 2019 at 2:55 pm

      Two thumbs up.

  8. 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.

    • Sreeni
      November 9, 2018 at 8:11 pm

      Actually yeah. That makes more sense. I was waiting for someone to mention it!

  9. 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.

  10. 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 ...

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

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

  12. 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.

  13. 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... ?

  14. 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.

  15. 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).

  16. 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

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

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

  18. 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!

  19. 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!

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

    Download and Install AdblockPlus

  21. 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.

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

    Just install Adblock Plus.

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

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

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

    That is really a helpful tip..

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

    This should be required reading for anyone on the net.

  26. 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

    • Tracy Dryden
      July 18, 2019 at 3:49 pm

      I used to use CNET, but quit even going to their web site because they created their own installers that tried to install a bunch of crap along with the software you actually wanted. BOO!

  27. 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.

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

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

    • sefasd
      December 12, 2016 at 8:08 am

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