Emma Watson, Jessica Biel, Eva Mendes top 2012 Most Dangerous Celebrities List

McAfee finds that the startlets pose the greatest risk for malware online

Kate Upton in the 2011 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.

It’s no secret that celebrities are prone to making mischief when spending a weekend in Las Vegas, but a new study finds that some of these stars are apt to wreak havoc on computers, as well.

Security software company McAfee released its 2012 Most Dangerous Celebrity list Monday, naming the year’s pop culture icons who pose the greatest risk on the web when it comes to bad links, viruses, malware and privacy-breaching software.

Topping this year’s list, ironically, is “Harry Potter” sweetheart Emma Watson, who knocked Heidi Klum out of last year’s No. 1 spot; McAfee found that a search for the young actress yields a nearly 1-in-8 chance of landing on a site containing spyware, adware, spam, viruses and other risks.

Taylor Swift at Mandalay Bay

Jessica Biel is No. 2, and Eva Mendes holds third.

It’s little surprise that the list is mostly made up of beautiful, highly searchable celebrity women, ranging from actresses like Salma Hayek (No. 9) and Sofia Vergara (No. 10) to supermodels like Kate Upton (No. 20) to musicians like Taylor Swift (No. 15) and Shakira (No. 7). Comedian Jimmy Kimmel ranks as the only male in the Top 20 at No. 13.

According to McAfee, who has published the annual list for the past six years, cybercriminals tap into the names of popular celebrities to lure web users to sites that are veritable minefields of malicious software that lift passwords and other personal information directly from computers. Malware also infects a computer when users download photos and videos of trending content that are secretly embedded with software bugs.

The company reports that in 2012, the search terms “free downloads” and “nude pictures” in conjunction with a celebrity name yielded the high result of risky web sites.

Shakira at Mandalay Bay Events Center

"In today's celebrity culture, consumers expect to be able to go online to catch up with the latest photos, videos, tweets and stories about their favorite celebrities. Due to the richness of the data and the high interaction, oftentimes consumers forget the risks that they are taking by clicking on the links," Paula Greve, director of web security research at McAfee, said in a statement. "As the sophistication and expectations of consumers with respect to their online experience have increased, so have the level and ability to deliver malware by malvertising, exploiting the user's browser without their awareness or masking malicious URLs behind shortened URLs."

Despite the buzzworthy names, the study also found that simply making pop culture headlines doesn’t equate with risk. McAfee noted that recent tabloid fodder like Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, despite their respective relationship dramas, didn’t make this year’s Top 50 list.

"Hot movies and TV shows, awards and industry accolades seem to be more of a factor than headline-grabbing activity," Greve said. "Still, searching for any celebrity can bring up risky sites, and the public should use caution by not clicking on any page that looks suspicious."

2011 NYE: Hyde Bellagio

McAfee recommends the following tips to stay protected:

* Beware of content that prompts you to download anything before providing content. You may want to opt to watch streaming videos or download content from an established site, such as Hulu, Netflix, NBC or ABC.

* Free downloads are significantly the highest virus-prone search terms. Anyone searching for videos or files to download should be careful as not to unleash malware on their computer.

* Since most people use a variety of devices to search for celebrities, be sure to have up-to-date, comprehensive security for all devices. It's important to have protection, such as McAfee All Access, on all Internet-enabled devices, including PCs, Macs, smartphones, tablets and netbooks.

* A complimentary version of SiteAdvisor software can be downloaded at SiteAdvisor.com.

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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