Criminals are increasingly hijacking online corporate brands to exploit them for their own profit, brand protection service MarkMonitor has warned.
Dubbed "brandjacking", the practice is becoming a major threat to household names. "Not only is the volume of these abuses significant, but abusers are becoming alarmingly savvy marketers," said Frederick Felman, MarkMonitor's chief marketing officer.
In its first Brandjacking Index report, MarkMonitor tracked 25 of the top 100 brands for three weeks by monitoring illegal or unethical tactics that ranged from cyber squatting to pay-per-click fraud. Media companies made up the greatest percentage of targeted brands, said MarkMonitor, which pegged media's slice of brandjacking at 31%.
"Media companies are under attack due to the value of their brands and contents as well as the traffic their good names drive," the report said. "The most trafficked brands draw the most abuse."
Cyber squatting, which usually means registering a URL that includes a real brand's name, easily took the prize for most threats. MarkMonitor tracked more than 286,000 instances in the three-week span.
But none of the threats MarkMonitor watched was used alone. Cyber squatting, for instance, is usually combined with other abuses, such as pay-per-click fraud and domain kiting - a practice mostly directed at financial brands that involves registering a domain, populating it with pay-per-click links from search engines such as Google, then abandoning the domain before the five-day grace period expires and they are required to pay for the URL.
From its data, MarkMonitor extrapolated that kite-related pay-per-click sites alone generate about $125m (£75m) in profits to cyber crooks.
"Criminals have learned the rules of online marketing and how to exploit the system," said Irfan Salim, chief executive officer of MarkMonitor. "They are adaptive, security savvy and opportunistic."