[CLICK...] Is There Danger Ahead?

Category: Security

Do you know how to tell right away if a website (or link) is going to lead you into a world of hurt? A single click can lead to an unwanted download, a malware infection, stolen login credentials, or identity theft. Here are some practical tips and tools you can use to click smarter...

How To Tell If A Site May Be Dangerous

The quotation “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” dates back to the late 1790s. And though there is some argument over who said it first, it’s a particularly relevant dictum in this Internet Age. The human race has never enjoyed more liberty of ideas, communication, and personal action than we have since the Web emerged as The Great Enabler.

But the need for constant vigilance against danger on the Web is also at an all-time high. Every click of a link has the potential to deliver malware infection, silently and instantly. Every new site that we visit stands a good chance of being a trap whose jaws can close on us so subtly we don’t notice until we’re swallowed.

Even sites we have visited a thousand times and know well can be mimicked with frightening accuracy by the bad guys. Eternal vigilance is, indeed, the price we must pay for the vast liberty the Web gives us.

Eternal Vigilance required for safety online

We cannot rely on other people to keep us safe out there on the Web. Software alone cannot outwit the evil but highly intelligent and adaptable people who wish to do us harm. So-called “reputation services” such as Web of Trust are not much use, especially against brand-new rogue sites that have no reputation yet. The labels and reviews that WoT members assign to sites are often polluted by personal vendettas, branding good sites as bad; worse, the bad guys brand each other’s sites as “good.”

Nobody looks out for you as well as you can. So here is what to look out for, when you encounter an unknown site, or a familiar one that just doesn’t seem right.

Telltale Signs A Site May Be Dangerous

Raise your shields immediately if a site asks you to do something that seems unnecessary or out of the ordinary. You shouldn’t have to install a browser plug-in you’ve never heard of in order to view a site’s content. Registration of a username and password should never require a credit card, even if the site swears the card won’t be charged. A survey that asks where you bank, where you live, who your family members are, and other questions you would find impertinent from a stranger should set your alarms ringing.

If you see a message asking you to login and verify your account credentials (login, password, account number or social security number) be extra wary. Your bank or financial institution should never ask you for that information by email.

Unexpected email from strangers should always be approached cautiously. So should email that seems to be from someone you know (or a company you do business with) if it is “out of character” in timing, topic, or tone. If anything seems “off” about an email, approach it cautiously.

Do not click on any links in a suspicious email. Instead, hover your cursor over the link and right-click to reveal a drop-down menu. Select the option to “copy link address” without opening the Web page to which it links. Then go check out that URL (web page address).

Look Before You Leap

The Google Transparency Report is a great place to start, because it reports on websites, and not just individual pages. Comodo Web Inspector is a good tool to examine a specific web page. Just paste the suspect URL into the Inspector’s input box and it will scan the target site for malicious content. Analyzing the whole site, not just the page to which the URL leads, can take several minutes. Alternatively, the Zulu URL Risk Analyzer also does a thorough job of evaluating the potential danger of a site.

Virus Total scans a site using multiple antivirus engines. If the site has been scanned before and deemed malicious, Virus Total will warn you. If it has been deemed safe, Virus Total will report it safe; but that doesn’t mean it’s safe now, some time after it was last scanned by Virus Total. So trust only warnings, not assurances of safety.

If a URL has been shortened, it must be fully expanded before it can be scanned by Virus Total or another URL-checker. You don’t want to expand a shortened URL by actually fetching its target Web address; that could infect you with malware. Instead, copy the shortened URL to your clipboard and paste it into the form at Unshorten.it. The expanded URL will appear below the shortened one, and you can copy the latter to any place you wish.

A “secure connection” is vital when exchanging sensitive information, such a credit card details, with any site. Look at your browser’s address bar for the “https://” protocol symbol. The “s” in it means the current connection is secured with encryption so only you and the server to which you are connected can read the information exchanged. Your browser should warn you if a web server does not have a valid “digital certificate” to make secured connections. The certificate may - or may not - also authenticate the identity of the server and/or its owners.

Digital certificates are sold by “certificate authorities,” such as Verisign or Comodo. To create differentiated products and make more profit, certificate authorities sell different levels of certificates. A basic certificate secures an https connection, but provides no assurances about the server or the people who own it. A more expensive one may indicate that the certificate authority has verified the legitimacy of the server. The most expensive “extended validation certificates” deliver the authority’s assurance that it has thoroughly verified the business or people who own the server, too; that is the most trustworthy certificate. See Comodo’s explanation of the different types of digital certificates. When you understand them, you will be able to tell what level of trustworthiness a certificate offers.

What has been your experience with suspicious websites, emails, etc. How do you protect yourself? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "[CLICK...] Is There Danger Ahead?"

Posted by:

04 May 2016

Wonderful suggestions and information!!! Thanks Bob. I'll be forwarding this info to the many people that call when something goes "wrong". Thanks again.

Posted by:

04 May 2016

"Even sites we have visited a thousand times and know well can be mimicked with frightening accuracy by the bad guys." — What, you mean, sites like, for instance... askbobrankin.com? ;)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Except that one, of course! :-)

Posted by:

04 May 2016

Thank you, Bob! Great article & good info for all of us, even the geeks.

While I do have some good programs to protect me, there is always the means to by-pass them to do harm. The bad guys love to create havoc.

I need to play with this programs, just to see what they do. Thanks again, for some really interesting stuff, to help protect me & everyone.

Posted by:

04 May 2016

Hello Bob ;

My PC is Protected by using

It will warn me If I try to go to any Website that it thinks might be Infected.

I would have to FORCE Bitdefender to ALLOW me to go inside a Infected Website .

That is one of the Reasons I bought Bitdefender Software ,, PLUS it has the Highest Rating for Best Anti Virus type of Software .

Posted by:

Robert Ames
04 May 2016

Suspect everyone. Just this morning I got an email saying I was part of a class entitled to file a claim in a court ordered settlement against Ticketmaster. Funny thing is, when I hovered over the links they led somewhere else entirely. I forwarded it to the proper authorities, but how many people don't know that very basic precaution?

Posted by:

Berlin Bill
04 May 2016

Bob, thanks for the good article again, but I'm sure you didn't mean to, you actually point to a website that may not itself be malicious but the software they offer puts your computer in a very dangerous security risk. I'm surprised you still recommend and use any software from Comodo. I hope you don't recommend to use their web browser. Biggest piece of trash on the web!

Posted by:

04 May 2016

Great article again Bob. I'm always looking for better online safety. Some of these suggestions I've been using, but others I hadn't heard of. Tanx! Additionally, some time ago, I switched all our devices to the Norton ConnectSafe free public DNS service. (Google it for info. on selecting the right numbers.) While no one thing can provide overall protection, I think it's been useful along with some of the other stuff.

Posted by:

04 May 2016

I received a suspicious URL that came to me via spam email. The URL was given a 96/100 MALICIOUS rating by Zulu URL Risk Analyzer, a “CAUTION” rating by Norton SafeWeb, a “DANGEROUS” rating by Google Transparency Report, and a “CLEAN SITE” rating by both Virus Total and Comodo Web Inspector. I am surprised by the differences in URL ratings. I am most impressed by the thoroughness and detail of the Zulu URL Risk Analyzer post-analysis report.

Posted by:

Pam Wine
04 May 2016

Thanks Bob, for such complete and valuable information! I am ALWAYS wondering how to check for a suspious link. This has been very helpful!!

Posted by:

04 May 2016

I just registered a (hobby) website with a well known web hosting/building company I'll update through FTP, but got all kinds of warnings trying to visit it through a browser when it contained nothing but a placeholder or simple index page. Wish I knew why my browser is shouting "wolf".

Posted by:

04 May 2016

I always wonder about shortened URLs. Thanks for mentioning http://unshorten.it/

Posted by:

04 May 2016

You say "Do not click on any links in a suspicious email". I'm assuming this means that the email had to be opened in order to see the link. Am I safely opening an email message if I don't click on the link it contains?

Posted by:

04 May 2016

All I get with unshorten.it is a "Please Wait..." message. I have tried it on my tablet and PC using Chrome and Safari.

Posted by:

04 May 2016

Of course you should NEVER click a link in an email unless you are 100 percent sure that it came from one of your contacts. Or if, as Bob said, anything about it seems even slightly odd.

But why go to the trouble of installing an URL analyser, just so you can check if the URL is safe or not? Or of pasting a shortened URL into unshorten it, to see the full URL? Why not just delete the email, as I do? Because if you really wanted to know if it was from one of your contacts, you could always open the URL you have always used for them and log on to your account by and then send them a message, asking if they had sent you the email! Personally, I never bother. And I never click on any links or reply to any emails unless I am at least 99.9 percent sure that they are from whom they purport to be from. And even then, if I have any doubt at all, I would at least check out the full headers of that email. Because you can never be too careful with the security of your personal data.

Posted by:

05 May 2016

If I hover the cursor over the address and rt. click, it does not show copy link address.

Posted by:

05 May 2016

In the past I was told, by a number of security experts. that right clicking an email to see the header and other details, could activate malware hiding inside that email. Lately, this issue is no longer mentioned by experts who tell you how to avoid email infections. In fact, they now advise you to right click emails and to check the properties. I have asked a number of these experts to confirm whether right clicking an email, to see the properties, is safe or not. Lately, none of them have answered this question. Could you kindly inform us what the real answer to the question is and, also, why the advice regarding it has changed?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Right-clicking an email in Gmail, Thunderbird or Outlook is not harmful, but it won't allow you to view headers, either. In each case, you need to open the message to gain access to the "Show Original", ""View Headers" or "File+Properties" option.

Posted by:

Old Man
05 May 2016

I have been using right-click and selecting View Message Source since the early days of e-mail. This brings up the entire e-mail, headers and body, in a plain-text format. So far no one has been able to embed anything malicious in plain-text messages.

If I see anything asking me to click on a link, I consider it phishing. Many sites have a separate e-mail address for reporting these; many use abuse@.... The suspicious e-mail is then sent to them without being opened. Outlook.com also has an option under Junk to mark it as phishing. This completely removes the e-mail from my account, not just putting it in the Junk folder.

As another poster said, if I am in doubt, I go to the company’s website using my usual access link (bookmarked) and check to see if they sent me any alerts or other warnings.

All of this can be done without opening the e-mail. So, even if there is a pixel to let the sender know it was opened, it won’t be sent.

I have never used any of the mentioned tools. If it's not from who it claims to be, then I don't care who sent it. Many years ago I tried to track senders, but they changed so fast and often that it was a wasted effort. I now leave that up to the experts to whom I report the fraudsters.

Posted by:

05 May 2016

Thank you Bob, for the great suggestions. I also found useful installing Bluhell Firewall 2.5.3 as an add on to my browser.
Bluhell is a free add on that lets me know if websites are forged or otherwise dangerous for a specific reason. It has saved my private info when my sense of intuition has failed to kick in.

Posted by:

05 May 2016

Many thanks to Old Man for the very useful information. And thank you, Bob, for making it possible to address the issue.

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