The Hazards of Following Short Links

These small links could be a big problem

A hyperlink with a pinter touching it

Adam Kaz / Getty Images

They're known as short links, shortened URLs, and Tiny URLs. Whatever you call them, their purpose is the same. Link shortening services such as Bitly, TinyURL, and over 200 others allow users to take a link that might be too long to post on social media and generate a shorter link that redirects to the longer one. While shortened links are convenient, they do come with some risk. We'll explain.

An Example of a Shortened Link

You could take a long link such as https://www.lifewire.com/dangers-of-short-links-2487975 and use a shortening service to make it into a nice short link that looks like https://tinyurl.com/gp2u3sv.

Not only does the link not look anything like the original, it completely obscures the intended link destination. There's no way you can tell what the intended target link is just by looking at it. All you see is the link shortening service site name followed by a string of seemingly random numbers and letters.

The Dangers of Shortened Links

Why is this a bad thing? If an internet-based bad guy wants to trick you into visiting a link that will install malware on your computer, you're more likely to fall for clicking http://tinyurl.com/82w7hgf then you would be for clicking http://badguysite.123.this.is.a nasty.virus.and.will.infect.your.computer.exe. There's no indication the shortened link leads to an executable file with malware.

Using link shortening to post malware and phishing links on social media sites is a very popular way to reach a wide audience of people who often click on things impulsively.

Can You Tell Where It Goes?

Before you click on that random short link you saw on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere, you should use a link expansion service to inspect it so you can decide whether its destination is somewhere you really want to go.

Fortunately, there are a couple of sites and tools that can help you learn where the hidden path of most any short link leads without having to visit it. ChecShortURL is a link expansion service that lets you input a short link, such as the example above, and see what the destination is without visiting it. You simply copy the link you want to check out, go to the website, and paste it into the search field.

Short URLs aren't going away anytime soon. They make sense for when you're trying to stay within the character limits of Twitter posts, and they're just plain handy when you have some massive link you're trying to read someone over the phone or in similar situations.

Hopefully, in the near future, we'll see more browser integration for link preview expansion and maybe someday we'll see destination link scanning, where the destination link is compared to a list of known bad URLs so we can be warned before we make the leap of faith to visit an unknown site.