This holiday season, consider giving the gift of security with an ad blocker.
That’s the takeaway message from an unlikely source — the FBI — which this week issued an alert warning that cybercriminals are using online ads in search results with the ultimate goal of stealing or extorting money from victims.
In a pre-holiday public service announcement, the FBI said that cybercriminals are buying ads to impersonate legitimate brands, like cryptocurrency exchanges. Ads are often placed at the top of search results but with “minimum distinction” between the ads and the search results, the feds say, which can look identical to the brands that the cybercriminals are impersonating. Malicious ads are also used to trick victims into installing malware disguised as genuine apps, which can steal passwords and deploy file-encrypting ransomware.
One of the FBI’s recommendations for consumers is to install an ad blocker.
As the name suggests, ad blockers are web browser extensions that broadly block online ads from loading in your browser, including in search results. By blocking ads, would-be victims are not shown any ads at all, making it easier to find and access the websites of legitimate brands.
Ad blockers don’t just remove the enormous bloat from websites, like auto-playing video and splashy ads that take up half the page, which make your computer fans run like jet engines. Ad blockers are also good for privacy, because they prevent the tracking code within ads from loading. That means the ad companies, like Google and Facebook, cannot track you as you browse the web, or learn which websites you visit, or infer what things you might be interested in based on your web history.
The good news is that some of the best ad blockers out there are free, and can be installed and largely forgotten.
If you’re looking for a widely recommended ad blocker, uBlock Origin is a simple, low-memory ad blocker that works for most browsers, like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge and Opera, plus the extension is open source so anyone can look at the code and make sure it’s safe to run.
You can also get content blockers for Android and iOS, which block ads from loading on your device.
Of course, you can switch your ad blocker off any time you want, and even allow or deny ads for entire websites. Ads are still an important part of what keeps the internet largely free and accessible, including TechCrunch, even as subscriptions and paywalls are increasingly becoming the norm.
While you’re here, if an ad blocker sounds right for you, consider these other web browser extensions and features that make browsing the web safer and more private.