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Think twice before you click that dot-gov link from your cellphone

Stokkete/Shutterstock.com

Hackers increasingly are seizing official dot-gov links displayed on smartphones, Twitter and other small spaces to send users to malicious websites, according to Symantec researchers.

In March 2011, URL-shrinking service Bitly partnered with the federal government to shorten content hosted on dot-gov and dot-mil domains so that authentic links would appear as 1.USA.gov/xyz on screens where space is limited. “You can be certain that every time you see a short URL with USA.gov in it, it will take you to a trustworthy source of official government information,” federal officials said at the time.

But the feature is flawed by an “open-redirect” vulnerability that allows perpetrators to relay users to the wrong site -- a technique sometimes called a man-in-the-middle attack. Symantec is reporting that during a one-day period, from Oct. 17 through Oct. 18, the number of 1.USA.gov clicks leading to illegitimate sites increased by more than 10 percent.

“While taking advantage of URL shorteners or an open-redirect vulnerability is not a new tactic, the fact that spammers can utilize a .gov service to make their own links is worrisome,” Eric Park, a Symantec senior analyst wrote on the company’s blog.

The uptick in hijacks started Oct. 12. As of Oct. 18, 43,049 clicks on 1.USA.gov links, or 15 percent, were heading to spam sites. The landing pages do not bear the dot-gov suffix, which might help clue in targets that they are being tricked. The illicit site names include, among others, consumerbiz.net, workforprofit.net, consumerbailout.net, and consumerstoday.net.

One of the 1.USA.gov sites takes users to a work-at-home sham webpage that looks like a financial news site. Visitors who hit links in an article are then transferred to a form that requests their name, phone number and email address to begin “making up to $87 an hour and work from the comfort of your own home!”  

(Image via Stokkete/Shutterstock.com)

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