What is Malvertising? Everything You Need to Know (2023)

By Tibor Moes / Updated: June 2023

What is Malvertising? Everything You Need to Know (2023)<br />

What is Malvertising?

Have you ever clicked on an online advertisement, only to be redirected to an unexpected website or bombarded with pop-ups? Welcome to the shady world of malvertising, a type of cyberattack that exploits online advertising networks to spread malware.

In this blog post, we’ll delve into the ins and outs of malvertising, its impact on users and publishers, and how you can protect yourself from this dangerous threat.


  • Malvertising involves injecting malicious code into legitimate online advertising networks to spread malware.

  • It targets unsuspecting users who click on infected ads, leading to unwanted software downloads or data breaches.

  • Safe browsing habits, updated software, and reputable ad blockers can help prevent malvertising attacks.

Don’t become a victim of cybercrime. Protect your devices with the best antivirus software and your privacy with the best VPN service.

Understanding Malvertising

Malvertising, short for malicious advertising, is the practice of using online ads to spread malware and infect devices. Cybercriminals inject malicious code into legitimate online advertising networks, which then display infected ads on reputable websites. These ads can look legitimate but contain malicious content, such as ransomware or spyware, that can compromise a user’s computer or mobile device.

The cunning nature of malvertising lies in its ability to target popular, reliable websites without having to attack the sites themselves. Users may assume the ads are safe because they appear on well-known sites, but when they click on a malicious ad, they may be redirected to a compromised landing page or have malware downloaded to their device without their knowledge.

The Impact of Malvertising on Users

The consequences of malvertising for users can be severe, ranging from data theft and device compromise to potential hardware damage. Malvertising is a malicious means of delivering malware to a user’s system. It can cause damage to files, redirect internet traffic, monitor user activity, or steal sensitive data. It can even create backdoor access points to a user’s system. In some cases, stolen data can be sold back to the victim for ransom or on the dark web.

As users’ devices become infected, they may experience a slow down in performance, overheating, or unexpected application crashes. These signs can indicate that a device has been compromised by malvertising and should be addressed immediately to minimize the damage and prevent further infections.

The Impact of Malvertising on Publishers and Advertisers

Malvertising poses significant challenges for publishers and advertisers. Publishers may suffer from a damaged reputation, decreased traffic and ad revenue, and even legal responsibility for any damages incurred by users visiting their sites. Additionally, the process of identifying and removing malicious ads can be time-consuming and resource-intensive.

For advertisers, malvertising can lead to a loss of trust in their brand and a decrease in the effectiveness of their advertising campaigns. The widespread use of ads blockers to combat malvertising also reduces the overall reach and impact of legitimate online advertising efforts.

Common Malvertising Techniques

Cybercriminals employ various methods to slip malicious code into ads and execute attacks on users’ devices. Some techniques include drive-by downloads, fileless malware, and steganography, which involves concealing malware within advertising images. Steganographic attacks can be particularly difficult to spot, as they can hide malware within a small group of pixels, making it difficult to differentiate between legitimate and malicious ads.

Fake software updates are another malicious technique used in malvertising. These updates appear to be legitimate but actually install spyware, viruses, or other harmful malware instead of (or along with) the intended program.

By staying informed about common malvertising techniques, users can better protect themselves from these threats.

Drive-by Downloads

Drive-by downloads are a common malvertising technique that can infect a device without any user interaction. When a user visits a legitimate website unknowingly hosting an infected ad, an invisible element on the web page triggers the download of malicious software onto the user’s device. This can occur even if the user doesn’t click on the advertisement itself, as the malware exploits browser vulnerabilities to execute the attack.

Exploit kits are frequently used in drive-by download attacks. These toolkits scan a user’s computer for any unpatched vulnerabilities and then deliver the appropriate malware to exploit those weaknesses. By using exploit kits, cybercriminals can target a wide range of users and devices, making their malvertising campaigns more effective and far-reaching.

Redirects to Malicious Sites

Another common malvertising technique is URL malvertising, which redirects users to malicious sites when they click on an infected ad. These sites may be designed to steal user credentials, launch phishing scams, or install additional malware onto the user’s device.

To protect yourself from URL malvertising, it’s essential to be vigilant when browsing the web and clicking on ads. Utilize ad blockers, enable click-to-play features in your browser, and consider implementing comprehensive antivirus solutions to help guard against this type of attack.

Real-World Malvertising Examples

Malvertising campaigns have targeted a wide range of websites and users, from dating sites and adult video streaming services to major platforms like Google AdWords and MSN.com. Even well-known organizations such as The New York Times, BBC, Spotify, Forbes, and the NFL have fallen victim to malvertising attacks.

The impact of these campaigns can be significant, leading to financial losses, data theft, and the propagation of malicious software among users and organizations. By understanding the real-world examples of malvertising, users and publishers can gain insight into the dangers they face and take appropriate steps to protect themselves.

Malvertising vs. Adware

While malvertising and adware may seem similar at first glance, they have distinct characteristics and effects on users. Malvertising involves inserting malicious code into legitimate online advertising networks, resulting in the display of infected ads on reputable websites. The goal of malvertising is to spread malware, such as ransomware or spyware, to unsuspecting users through seemingly legitimate ads.

Adware, on the other hand, is a type of malware that specifically focuses on displaying annoying ads on a user’s device. These ads can slow down the device’s performance and create an unpleasant browsing experience.

While both malvertising and adware can negatively impact users, it’s important to understand their differences in order to effectively combat each threat.

Steps to Prevent and Mitigate Malvertising

There are several practical steps that both end users and publishers can take to detect, prevent, and combat malvertising threats. Installing ads blockers, enabling click-to-play features in browsers, and implementing comprehensive antivirus solutions are all effective ways to safeguard against malvertising attacks.

In addition to these measures, it’s essential to keep operating systems, browsers, and antivirus software up to date, as this reduces the chance of any older, unpatched vulnerabilities being exploited by malicious actors. By staying informed about the latest malvertising techniques and taking proactive steps to protect their devices, users can significantly reduce their risk of falling victim to these threats.

Utilizing Ad Blockers

Ad blockers are a powerful tool in the fight against malvertising. These software applications can be installed as browser extensions or plugins, and they help to block annoying ads, intrusive trackers, and malicious content on web pages. By preventing potentially harmful ads from being displayed, ad blockers can significantly reduce a user’s exposure to malvertising threats.

However, it’s important to keep ad blockers updated in order to block the newest malicious ads. Additionally, users should be aware that ad blockers may occasionally block legitimate ads as well, potentially affecting the browsing experience or the effectiveness of legitimate advertising campaigns.

Enabling Click-to-Play Features

Click-to-play is a security feature available in most browsers that requires users to click on content that needs a plugin, such as Flash or Java, to run. This prevents the automatic loading of potentially harmful plugin content, such as advertisements, and gives users greater control over the media that plays on their devices.

By enabling click-to-play features, users can reduce their exposure to malvertising threats and avoid unintentionally downloading malware through infected ads. This simple step, combined with the use of ads blockers and antivirus software, can help users stay safe while browsing the web.

Implementing Comprehensive Antivirus Solutions

Comprehensive antivirus solutions provide protection against various types of malware, including those delivered through malvertising. These software applications typically offer features such as real-time scanning, automatic updates, and firewall protection, all of which can help detect and remove malware from a user’s device.

It’s essential to keep antivirus software up to date to stay protected from the newest threats and to detect any existing malware on a user’s system. By utilizing comprehensive antivirus solutions, users can safeguard their devices against malvertising attacks and maintain a secure browsing experience.

Identifying Suspicious Ads

Recognizing potentially harmful ads is an important skill for users to develop in order to protect themselves from malvertising threats. Suspicious ads may be hastily designed, contain spelling mistakes, or make unrealistic promises. By examining the design, content, and other features of an ad, users can identify potential threats and avoid clicking on malicious ads.

If a user encounters a suspicious ad, they should refrain from clicking on it and instead conduct research on the company or product being advertised. Users can then reach out directly to the company through email or phone to ensure they do not inadvertently expose themselves to malicious code.


In conclusion, malvertising is a dangerous and prevalent threat in the online advertising landscape, affecting both users and publishers alike. By understanding the various techniques used by cybercriminals, the impact of malvertising on users and organizations, and the differences between malvertising and adware, we can take proactive steps to prevent and mitigate these threats. Utilizing ads blockers, enabling click-to-play features, implementing comprehensive antivirus solutions, and learning to identify suspicious ads are all crucial steps in protecting ourselves and our devices from the insidious world of malvertising.

How to stay safe online:

  • Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
  • Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
  • Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
  • Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.

Happy surfing!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most frequently asked questions.

What is an example of malvertising?

Malvertising, also known as malicious advertising, is a cybercrime tactic in which attackers use online ads to distribute malware, commit fraud, or gather sensitive information.

An example of malvertising could be a seemingly innocent ad on a website, when clicked, installs malicious code on the user’s device.

What is the meaning of malvertising?

Malvertising is the malicious use of online advertising to spread malware and other malicious software. It can be used to infect a computer or gather personal data without the user’s knowledge or consent.

How does malvertising happen?

Malvertising is a dangerous online threat where malicious advertisements are placed on legitimate websites. These malicious ads contain a small piece of code or malicious link which directs the user’s browser to an exploit kit hosted on a malicious server.

When the user’s machine successfully connects to the malicious server, the exploit kit then runs, compromising the user’s security.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor has tested 39 antivirus programs and 30 VPN services, and holds a Cybersecurity Graduate Certificate from Stanford University.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.