How to Avoid Dangerous Websites

Tips for browsing safer websites

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Staying safe on the web should be a high priority for everyone. While the old saying "ignorance is bliss" relates in some situations, it most certainly doesn't apply to time spent online.

Unfortunately, there isn't a master "List of Bad Websites" page that you can look through to know what to avoid. Having one huge sketchy/unsafe site list would be extremely difficult to maintain, anyway.

Instead, use the suggestions and tips below to learn what you can do to avoid dangerous sites and guard your safety online.

Use a Web Filter

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A web filter is the closest thing you'll get to a list of dangerous sites. However, instead of having to look through the list, the web filter software simply blocks you from accessing them.

There are lots of web filters you can purchase or download for free that will prohibit you or members of your family from opening any questionable sites. Most have varying levels of blocking power, so you can block all unsafe sites that might include malware, or block just porn sites, or gambling sites, or anything else that falls under a specific category deemed inappropriate or dangerous; all web filters work a little differently.

In fact, many search engines provide the option to avoid dangerous sites by turning on a "safer" search. For example, Google offers SafeSearch that can block explicit search results like porn, and it works for all image and video searches, as well as news and general search content.

Some DNS services support web filtering, too. They can be used from a router to help you avoid dangerous sites on the entire network, or you can use the web filtering rules on specific devices, like just your phone or computer. Some free, public DNS servers support web filtering to block ads, known malware sites, porn, and more.

The biggest difference between built-in search engine filters and software filters is simply access: if users know how to turn off search engine filters, they're relatively easy to get around. 

Many parents use web filters to make sure that their kids are only using sites that are age-appropriate, but people of all ages can use them to ensure that their web searches are safe.

Don't Guess the Address of a Website

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This is a big reason people land on dangerous websites without much effort at all. If you're not absolutely sure how to spell the URL to the website you want to go do, search for it in a search engine.

What happens here is that you try typing the correct URL but end up a letter or two off, or you enter the wrong top-level domain. Sometimes, an incorrect URL points you to a real website, just not the one you want.

The similarly spelled site might be full of ads or malware, or it might look a lot like the site you were wanting to get on, but instead of letting you log in to your bank, email, social media profile, etc., it might collect your password and then steal your information.

When in doubt, just do a quick search for the site on Google or another search engine to find the real URL.

Check the URL for Issues

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Another way to know if you should avoid a particular website is to check the URL for issues. There are two things to look for.

The first is simply problems with the way the URL is spelled. Whether you entered the URL manually or clicked it from a search engine, always do a quick check once the page is fully loaded to make sure the URL looks normal.

For example, if you intended to visit Facebook.com but you see that the URL has a letter or two missing or added, it's clear that you're in fact not on the Facebook site you wanted to be on. Like you read above, some dangerous sites like to use similar addresses to fool you into downloading or buying something.

Something else to look for is the https section at the beginning of the URL. Not all sites use it, but it's important to know which ones do depending on what you'll be doing on that site.

HTTPS and HTTP websites are fundamentally different. If there's an S at the end, then the connection is secure. This doesn't mean that the site itself is malware-free or legitimate, but it does indicate if communication between your computer and the website is secure, which is important if you'll be sending personal information to the site.

For example, if you think you're on your bank website but you look at the URL to see that it's using http, you'd be wise to assume that the URL was entered incorrectly or that there's a temporary issue with the website.

Banks and other websites that deal with your finances, passwords, and personal information should all be using HTTPS. If the site you're on doesn't use HTTPS but you're sure that it should, there's a good chance that the site is fake and should be avoided.

Never Open Questionable Sites

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When in doubt, don't click. Period.

This rule applies no matter where the URL is. Maybe you got it in an email or a text message, or you found it on another website or in a search engine. Bad links can pop up anywhere, and clicking them can quickly lead you to questionable websites or downright bad content.

If the site description, title, or URL seems in any way "off" to you, find another site that's more reputable.

Is it a short link and you're not sure where it actually takes you? It can be dangerous to follow short links if you're not completely sure where you'll end up after clicking them. Your best bet is to use a link expansion service like CheckShortURL to preview the long/real URL before deciding whether to visit the site.

If It Looks Unreal, It Probably Is

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Generally speaking, most websites advertise regular content. Maybe there are articles to read, videos to watch, music to listen to, etc. However, some websites claim to offer much more, and others might give you things that are obviously illegal.

The short answer to how to deal with these situations is to use your best judgment. If it seems too good to be true, you're probably right.

Here are some examples:

  • If a movie streaming site you're on is advertising a movie that's still in theaters, you can bet that you're on a dangerous site in the sense that it's offering illegal files, some of which might be viruses. This is extremely common on torrent websites.
  • Or, maybe the site is offering free software downloads when you know for sure that others have to pay to get those same applications.
  • If the website is letting you order weapons or drugs without a license or approval from anyone, it's safe to assume that you should avoid that website.
  • A website that asks for all your personal details or bank account information when it's completely unnecessary to do so (i.e., you're not buying something), is most likely a dangerous website that you should avoid.
  • Some websites will fake a virus scan right there in your web browser to fool you into thinking that your computer is infected and you need to buy their software to clean it. This isn't how virus scans work, so these are always fake warnings, and the entire website should be avoided to prevent real damage.

When you're visiting a website for the first time, do a quick common sense check to get a feel for whether or not you really think it's safe to continue being there.

Choose Your Searches Carefully

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If you're searching for something that's perfectly innocent but could be construed as inappropriate, think of different ways to frame your search so there are no unpleasant surprises.

Even though search engines are your friend and are a necessity for finding great content, they're only as useful as you let them be. Unfortunately, even your safest, most well-intentioned searches can end up in places that you didn't mean to go to. 

Use a Link Scanner

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Another way to avoid bad websites is to use a tool that will scan the site to check for malicious items. There are two ways to do this: install an antivirus program that supports link scanning or run the suspicious link through an online virus scanner.

If you install a link scanning program to your computer, you can basically set it up and let it do its thing automatically to check for bad sites on the fly. An online scanner, however, has to be used manually for each page you want to check.

Some search engines include link scanners by default, such as Google's Safe Browsing technology. In those cases, you'll be told before the page loads that it might be unsafe to continue, and you should heed those warnings.