The internet is full of websites that are either fake, fraudulent or a scam. It’s a sad fact of life. You see, the evolution of the internet has brought with it a number of extremely convenient advances in the way we shop, bank, and interact with the world around us. At the same time, that evolution has also given way to new risks—new avenues for criminals to rip off the unsuspecting.
Really, what it all boils down to is fraud. These hackers and cyber criminals are little more than new age con men. And the con game is as old as time itself—people have literally been tricking one another since the beginning of time. And in the same vein as ancient mystics and old-fashioned snake oil salesmen, these conmen are after one thing: your money.
Nowadays their tactics tend to involve phishing.
Phishing is a type of online fraud that involves getting an individual or organization to disclose sensitive, sometimes compromising information, under false pretenses that have been expertly manufactured by the attackers. These attacks take several forms, often combining multiple mediums elaborately to create the impression of legitimacy.
What does that mean?
Well, let’s look at an example. An attacker may start by sending you a formal looking email from an address that resembles an official account. It may say something like, “an attempt to login to your account has been made from another country, please update your password.”
In fact, that’s exactly how John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary’s Clinton’s presidential campaign, had his email account compromised.
That email included a link to a specially designed page that is a perfect replication of the Google login page. To the untrained eye, it’s almost impossible to tell the fake site from the real one. You can see how similar tactics could be used to steal financial information or medical data. Here’s an example of a fake PayPal login screen:
And with the advent of free SSL services and recent changes to browser indicators, it’s becoming easier than ever to disguise phishing sites as legitimate.
Phishing is amongst the most prevalent, but not the only type of attack that you need to be wary of on the internet. Here are some examples of other types of internet malfeasance:
Here are 5 ways to determine if a website is fake – plus some additional tips to stay safe online.
You would be absolutely shocked how many people pay little to no attention to the address bar of their browser. This is a huge mistake. The address bar contains a ton of vital information about where you are and how secure you are there. So get into the habit of occasionally glancing up there whenever you visit a new page.
One of the chief tactics in phishing is to create a website that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. In order to do this, hackers and cybercriminals have gotten very ingenious in the ways they copy URLs. Between the ability to create sub-domains that mimic real domains and how browsers can confusingly shorten URLs, it’s easy to get duped
In order to know what to look for, you need to know how a URL is constructed.
Now, armed with that knowledge, always make sure that you know what the actual domain you’re on is. Sub-domains can be misleading. Here’s an example of a first- and second-level sub-domain that intentionally mimic a domain and TLD:
Don’t be fooled, in the example above the name of the actual domain is “yaraneaftab.” This is not really PayPal. This is a phishing site. Notice how it says “Secure” thanks to the use of an SSL certificate?
That’s why you always have to check the URL.
Back to the address bar. If the last point didn’t underscore the importance of this browser feature—this one should drive the point home. Within the address bar are several connection indicators that let you know whether your connection with this website is private. As we mentioned earlier, it’s possible to eavesdrop on connections on the internet.
The internet was built on HTTP, or the hypertext transfer protocol. Unfortunately, by default that protocol is unsecure. Any communication done via HTTP can be intercepted, manipulated, stolen—you name it. In order to remedy this, SSL or Secure Sockets Layer was developed. SSL was later succeeded by TLS or Transport Layer Security. Today, we colloquially refer to both as SSL.
At any rate, HTTP + SSL = HTTPS, which is a secure version of HTTP that prevents communication from being intercepted and read by anyone but you and the website you are connected to. That’s a lot of information, but what you really need to know is this:
HTTP = Bad
HTTPS = Good
Never trust an HTTP website with your personal information.
Now, let’s get to connection security indicators. You want to look for one of the two following indicators:
The Padlock Icon
Or, the Green Address Bar
Both these icons indicate that the website is using HTTPS and that you have a secure connection. If you see either of these, your connection is secure and you are communicating privately with the website listed in the URL.
Remember, all secure connections will have the padlock icon, but some may also have the Green Address Bar.
The Green Address Bar is only shown when a website is using a specific type of SSL certificate known as an Extended Validation (EV) Certificate. This certificate allows a website to prove it is operated by a real-world, legally incorporated company. Browsers recognize EV certificates by showing the company name to the left of the URL. When you see a green address bar, you can relax—you’re secure. The green address bar cannot be faked, it is un-impugnable proof of identity—and by extension trustworthiness.
The exact appearance of these two indicators varies by browser. Sometimes the name is written in green, sometimes it is inside a green rectangle. Here are a few examples of how EV certificates look in popular browsers:
It’s possible for a URL to have HTTPS in it but for the padlock icon not to appear correctly. This indicates that there is some security issue with the connection and represents a cause for concern. If this is the case, it’s best to assume you do not have a secure connection.
This one is for advanced users only because it involves diving a bit deeper into your browser’s menu and can be misleading if you don’t have a proper understanding of SSL.
If a website doesn’t have the green address bar, the most that you can tell from the presence of security connection indicators is that your connection is secure. That means no third party can eavesdrop and steal information. It doesn’t mean you’re safe, though.
That’s because you don’t know who is on the other end of the connection, yet.
Fortunately, that information might be available. Here’s how to find it:
Most browsers (like Safari and Firefox) allow you to view the certificate by clicking the padlock icon in the address bar.
When you click on the certificate information, you will get all of the information the CA verified before it issued the certificate.
Once you have the certificate details open you want to look for the following field: Subject.
The Subject is the website or organization that the certificate is representing. Depending on the type of certificate (DV, OV, or EV) you will see different amounts of information in the Subject.
A DV certificate will just have a domain name. An OV certificate will include limited company information (a name, a state/province and country). An EV will have detailed company information, as much as an exact street address. You can recognize an EV certificate if the browser is displaying the Green Address Bar. Extended Validation offers the most information—that’s why it has a special visual indicator.
If an organization has an OV SSL certificate – which is recommended as a baseline for e-commerce businesses, financial institutions, etc. – then you will be able to see verified business details in the certificate information. Provided the website is registered to the right company, you’re fine. You can probably trust this site.
If it doesn’t, then you need to be careful.
There’s also the possibility that this information isn’t supplied at all. If that’s the case then the website only has a Domain Validated SSL certificate. This doesn’t mean you should automatically distrust the website, but it does mean you need to continue to be skeptical until the site can prove its legitimacy.
When a company or organization makes a substantial investment in their customers’ security, they typically want a little bit of credit for it. That’s one of several reasons that trust seals exist. You’ve probably seen more than a few trust seals in your time on the internet. They look like this:
Trust seals are commonly placed on homepages, login pages, and checkout pages. They’re immediately recognizable and they remind visitors that they are secure on this page. It’s not unlike putting a sign in your yard or a sticker in your window that advertises your security system. People know what they mean as soon as they see them.
But did you know you can click on them too?
That’s right, most SSL certificates come with trust seals that will display verified information when clicked on. This is important because it lets you know that the SSL certificate is in good standing and might also inform you of additional security mechanisms in place like malware scans or vulnerability assessments.
Just seeing the site seal isn’t enough, it is essential that you click on it to verify it’s legitimate.
This is the last resort, but it serves as a nice final safeguard: Google it. Literally. The Google Safe Browsing Transparency Report allows you to copy and paste the URL into a field and it gives you a report on whether or not you can trust that website. It’s not especially fancy, nor does it boast impressive aesthetics, but it certainly is an effective way to determine whether or not a site is unsafe.
Granted, this isn’t the end-all, be-all. Google does occasionally miss stuff. But not for long. When you’re as ubiquitous as Google, nothing escapes your view for long. Google’s Safe Browsing service is amongst the best on the internet when it comes to keeping users safe. If you’re ever in doubt, Google it.
This next section might as well be called our common sense section. That being said, you’d be genuinely surprised how many people ignore this stuff on a regular basis. Here are nine more tips to help keep you safe online.
The browsers are our portal to the internet. We can only go where they take us, and sometimes they don’t want to take us certain places. Do yourself a favor and listen to them when they suggest you not go to a website. Whether it’s Chrome or Mozilla or even Edge or Safari – they all let you know when you’re about to stray to somewhere unsavory. And this isn’t just guesswork, either. This is based on data and user reports that clearly indicate a threat. So take that threat seriously: listen to your browser.
Good websites take pride in themselves. That means the graphics look sharp, the spelling and grammar is on point and the entire experience feels streamlined and polished. If you’re on a website that feels like it was written by someone with a third-grade education – or by someone who doesn’t speak English as a first language – you may want to be a little bit wary. Especially if those mistakes appear on important pages. Everyone makes the occasional mistakes—even big companies. But at the point the mistakes become egregious you need to beware.
Another telltale sign when it comes to whether or not a website is fake or not can be found on its “Contact Us” section. How much information is there? Is an address supplied? What about a phone number? Does that line actually connect to the company? The more information that is supplied, the more confident you should feel—provided it’s actually good information. If all they’re giving you is an email address or, worse, there’s no contact information whatsoever—run.
Ads are a fact of life. No matter where you go, you’re going to run into ads. But if you’re on a website that is more ads than websites, tread carefully. If you have to click several links to get through intrusive pop-ups and misdirects to reach the intended page—you’re on a website that is probably fake or at least scamming. There’s a fine line between UX and selling ads. When it’s clear that a website has no regard for that line, you need to be wary.
This is another tip for advanced users.
If you really want to know who is running a website there is a database called Who.Is that can tell you what email address it’s registered to. There are a number of free sites that allow you to check a website’s official WHO.IS registration. Here is one option.
A WHO.IS registration can tell you the owner of a website and if it’s an individual or a company. If it’s a company there will be an “Organization” listed along with an address and phone number. For an individual, there will be a “Name” listed along with an address.
This can be an invaluable tool, especially when you’re dealing with brands. If you’re at a website that claims to be owned by a large company but is registered to some address in another country, there’s a good chance you’re on a fake website.
Any legitimate e-commerce company is going to have a shipping and return policy, it’s considered a best practice. So any website that purports to be selling something but lacks this documentation is automatically suspect. Likewise, if you click the link and the policy looks flimsy or has been copy-and-pasted directly from another website, that’s also suspect. Look, we’re not telling you to read the whole thing – nor are we naïve enough to believe you would – but a quick look should tell you all you need to know.
The beautiful thing about the internet is that nothing exists in a vacuum. Chances are other people have had experiences with this company and – good or bad – they have shared those experiences somewhere. With just a tiny bit of digging, you can probably figure out if a website is fake. Google the name of the site plus “reviews.” Check with the Better Business Bureau. Just look a little. The internet may not be the best at telling you whether something is good, but it can definitely tell you when something is fake. And all it takes to find out is about three minutes and Google.
We encourage you to report fake websites. It’s good for the internet, it’s good for your inner chi and if you’re petty—it feels SOOOO good. Here’s where to report malicious websites:
Microsoft gives its users an opportunity to report malicious sites within its browsers. To do this go to the Tools/Safety menu, select Phishing Filter/SmartScreen Filter and click “Report Unsafe Website.”
It’s possible that after reading this guide you’re feeling a little uneasy. That’s not the point we were trying to make. The internet is an amazing place and you can use it for a countless number of worthwhile activities. But, much like anything else in life, there are some dangers. Don’t let that dissuade you, as long as you stay vigilant you’re not likely to run into many problems.
Just stay on the beaten path, trust websites that have made an investment in authentication and be careful if you ever get the sense that something might be off.