It’s the ultimate query when surfing the open seas of the internet: is this website safe? 

Want to stream video without accidentally getting malware instead of your favorite TV show? Doing some online shopping and want to verify that the e-commerce store is legit before you enter your bank details or credit card number?

It’s good to be cautious, and it’s absolutely vital to check that a website is safe before sharing any personal information (e.g., credit card numbers, passwords, addresses, etc.). In this how-to, we’ll offer some quick and easy tips to help you avoid dodgy URLs and verify the trustworthiness of any website.

Image of fake website with bright red background that is asking you for your username and password

Be sure you trust a site before entering any personal info.

#1 Use your browser’s safety tools

Today’s most popular web browsers already include security features to help you stay safer online. These built-in browser tools can block annoying pop-ups, send Do Not Track requests to websites, disable unsafe Flash content, stop malicious downloads, and control which sites can access your webcam, microphone, etc.

Take a moment to review your settings now. Here’s how to find them:

  • Chrome:  Settings > Advanced > Privacy and security
  • Edge:  Settings > Advanced settings
  • Firefox:  Options > Privacy & Security
  • Safari: Preferences > Privacy

Want to stay even safer and more private? Consider using a browser created specifically with those goals in mind. AVG Secure Browser masks your digital fingerprint to block targeted advertising, avoids phishing scams, and prevents identity theft — all for free.

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#2 Use a website safety-check tool

To quickly check if a site or a specific URL is safe, you can use an objective website safety checker like Google Safe Browsing. According to their page, “Google’s Safe Browsing technology examines billions of URLs per day looking for unsafe websites”, which makes this a great website safety-check tool. Just copy/paste any URL into the search box and hit Enter. Boom! Google Safe Browsing will test the URL and report back on its reputation in just seconds. It’s that easy.

Image of the Google Safe Browsing website, where you can check if a website is safe Google knows the web — including which sites are dangerous.

A similar unbiased safety tool is VirusTotal’s free website security checker, which inspects sites using over 70 antivirus scanners and URL/domain blacklisting services to detect various types of malware and other computer threats. This works just like the Google Safe Browsing tool: simply enter the URL you want to check and hit Enter.

Image of the VirusTotal webpage where you can check if a URL is dangerous

VirusTotal will also tell you if a website is dangerous.

Whichever site-checker you choose, be sure to bookmark the page to use later — it’s especially important to test URL safety before you do anything sensitive, like enter your credit card details.

#3 Double-check URLs

Moreover, there’s a nice simple way to perform your own website safety test: check the URL. In other words, make sure you know where a link is going to take you before you click on it. How? Just mouseover over any link to verify the URL it’s really linked to.

Try hovering your mouse over this

Hover your mouse over the link above, but don’t click it. In Firefox and Chrome, you should see the URL that it links to at the bottom-left of your browser: https://www.avg.com. Easy, right?

You can also check URLs on Safari, but it requires one extra step. First, click the View menu, and then select Show status bar. Now, when you hover over the link, you’ll see where it leads in the bottom left corner of your screen.

Make sure the URLs are spelled correctly, too. Most people only glance over text on the web. Hackers know this and will often substitute visually similar characters (e.g., “Yah00.com” instead of “Yahoo.com” or “Paypa1.com” instead of “Paypal.com”) to trick you into visiting their phishing sites and unwittingly giving them your passwords, credit card numbers, and other private data. Don’t fall for this trick. It only takes a moment to verify a URL is safe. And it’s worth it.

#4 Check for HTTPS

Making sure any website you visit uses HTTPS is another way to make sure the site is safe.

HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) is the fundamental protocol for sending data between your web browser and the websites you visit. And HTTPS is just the secure version of this. (The “S” simply stands for “secure”.)

HTTPS is often used for online banking and shopping, because it encrypts your communications to prevent criminals from stealing sensitive information like your credit card numbers and passwords.

So how do you know if a site uses HTTPS? Check for the padlock in your browser’s navigation bar. If you see it, you know the site you’re on is using a trusted SSL digital certificate — in other words, your connection is protected.

Image of Google Chrome browser's address bar with the green padlock circled

If you don’t see the padlock, take your shopping elsewhere.

This isn't a silver bullet, though. Some phishing websites could be using HTTPS to appear to be legitimate. But the main takeaway is this: If a website doesn't have that padlock, don't enter your password or credit card number.

#5 Look for a privacy policy

If you’re already on a website, but can’t easily tell if it’s legitimate, look for a privacy policy. Reputable websites should have a privacy policy page, as it’s the law in many countries. So, take a few extra seconds to click around the site and see if you can find their privacy policy.

 The privacy policy is often located at the bottom of the page in small font. The privacy policy is often located at the bottom of the page in small font.

And what if the privacy policy is incomprehensible? Unfortunately, many privacy policies are full of legalese and can be hard to make heads or tails of. It’s a good idea to search for words like “third-parties” “data” “store” “retain” and similar terms using Ctrl-F (or Command-F on Mac) to understand how the site handles your personal data and what they intend to do with it (such as keep it forever or sell it to third-parties). 

We’re getting a bit off topic now, as many legitimate sites can also have shady data practices, such as Facebook. However, it’s still a good idea to make sure a site you’re using at least has a privacy policy, as that’s one good indicator of legitimacy. 

#6 Don’t blindly trust “trust” badges

Trust badges, or trust “seals” usually appear on shopping or e-commerce sites in an attempt to display trustworthiness.

Just a few examples of trust seals you might see while shopping.Just a few examples of trust seals you might see while shopping. Source : https://trustlock.co/free-website-trust-badges-trust-seals-to-help-boost-sales/

Now, some legitimate sites use these. But, they’re also not very hard to add. Tons of sites simply copy and paste these icons, without having any real security to back them up. In fact, there are many articles out there advising e-commerce sites to make up their own trust seals to increase sales.

In theory, you should be able to click on the trust seal and see if you can verify it. In practice, that often doesn’t work very well, on either legitimate or fraudulent sites. But, it is really important to do some due diligence, especially before doing any online shopping.

So what can you do? Try searching “is [e-commerce shop] a scam?” or “[e-commerce] shop reviews”. If it’s a scam, you’ll certainly find a lot of posts from people complaining that they never received their items or about other problems. If you can’t find anything, it’s best to avoid that particular shop and find a well-reviewed one instead.

#7 Learn some obvious signs that a site is fake

Sometimes a website looks so spammy, you can tell immediately without even having to do a formal check of the site’s reputation. If you accidentally land on a website like this, there are some fairly obvious signs of malware you can look for:

  • On-site spam: if a site has lots of flashing warnings or exclamation marks, it’s probably scammy. (And who wants to read a site with a strobe light, anyway?)
  • Pop-ups: if you arrive on site and tons of pop-ups appear, it’s best to close all of them immediately and navigate away.
  • Malicious redirects: if you get immediately redirected to a completely different website, especially a shady one, this is a malicious redirect. It can mean that the original site was fake, or it can be a legitimate site that got attacked by malware, leading to hidden code in its site. The original site may not have malicious intentions, but until they clear up their code, you don’t want to be there.
  • Search engine warnings: when you search for something, you might find that the search engine (such as Google) displays warnings next to some links, such as “This site might be hacked” or “Visiting this site may be harmful to your computer.” Although these warnings aren’t 100% accurate, it’s a good idea to choose a different option instead.

#8 Use whois to look up the domain owner

Want to know who’s behind a certain website? Use whois (pronounced “Who is”) to find out who owns the domain, where and when the site was registered, contact information, and more. It’s super easy to do, and you’ll feel like a private eye doing it. Try a whois lookup here… it should help you determine if the site is fraudulent.

Image of the Icann webpage, where you can search for info about who's behind a website

Enter any URL to learn who’s really behind the website.

#9 Call the company

Still not sure if the company is legit? Find their contact details and give them a call. Really, you can learn a lot by who answers the phone. If the number doesn’t exist — or if some teenage voice answers with “Dude?” — then something’s probably up. Just trust your gut.

Where do you find a website’s contact details? Look for a “Contact us” or “About us” link near the very top or very bottom of the homepage. Or try a Whois Lookup (tip #8 above) to see if that reveals a phone number.

#10 Install web security tools

Using AVG can also help you avoid dodgy websites. Download AVG AntiVirus FREE for essential protection, including Web Shield to block malicious downloads and Email Shield to block malicious attachments. Or try AVG Internet Security free for 30 days to get our absolute best online protection, including Fake Website Shield to help you avoid phishing sites.

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AVG Internet Security helps you steer clear of fake websites.

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