Criminals hijacking online corporate brands to hide behind and masquerading for profit, are increasing their efforts, a report released today said.

Dubbed "brandjacking" by MarkMonitor, a US brand protection service provider, it says 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 cybersquatting 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 content, as well as the traffic their good names drive," the report said. "The most trafficked brands draw the most abuse."

Cybersquatting, which in terms of brandjacking 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 worked solo. Cybersquatting, for instance, is usually combined with other abuses, such as pay-per-click fraud and domain kiting. The latter practice, which MarkMonitor said was mostly directed at financial brands, involves registering a domain, populating it with pay-per-click links from search engines like Google, which pay them a fee for click-throughs, then abandoning the domain before the five-day grace period expires and they're required to pay for the URL.

From its data, MarkMonitor extrapolated that kite-related, pay-per-click sites alone generate about $125 million (£62.5m) in profits to cyber crooks.

"Criminals have learned the rules of online marketing and how to exploit the system," said Irfan Salim, MarkMonitor chief excecutive. "They are adaptive, security savvy and opportunistic."