How to Test a Suspicious Link Without Clicking It

Does that link look fishy? Here's how to tell if it's dangerous

You receive an email from a company you do business with telling you to log in and check on something. A handy link is provided, but something stops you from clicking. Is this a legitimate link or a trick? Are you heading to a real website or are you opening your computer to a virus or malware?

When faced with a "to click or not to click" decision, stop, take a step back, and do some investigating. Tools, techniques, and common sense can help you figure out what's real and what's dangerous.

If you're dealing with an embedded link, you can't see the URL automatically. Hover your cursor over the link to reveal the URL without clicking on it and accessing its destination site.

Inspect Short Links

One clue that your link may be dangerous is that the URL seems too short. While link-shortening services such as Bitly are popular and common tools for creating shorter links, malware distributors and phishers use link shortening to conceal their links' true destinations.

You can't tell if a short link is dangerous just by looking at it. Use a link-expansion service such as ChecShortURL to reveal a short link's true intended destination. Some link-expander sites even tell you if the link is on a list of known "bad sites." Another option is to load a browser plug-in that will show you a short link's destination if you right-click on the short link.

Screenshot of a spam email with a shortened link

Verify Links in Unsolicited Emails

A common phishing ploy is to send an email that seems as if it comes from your bank. These emails usually instruct victims to "verify your information" by clicking on a link, ostensibly to go to the bank's website.

If you received an unsolicited email that is supposedly from your bank asking you to click on a link, then you are likely the target of a phishing attack.

Even if the link to your bank looks legitimate, don't click on it. Visit your bank's website via your web browser, either by entering its address or accessing a bookmark. This advice holds true for unsolicited texts from your "bank," as well.

Screenshot of an unsolicited bank email with a suspicious link

Beware of Links With Strange Character Strings

Hackers and malware distributors often will try to conceal the destination of malware or phishing sites by using what is known as URL encoding. For example, with URL encoding, the letter A translates to %41.

Using encoding, hackers and malware distributors can mask destinations, commands, and other nasty stuff within a link so that you can't read it. To combat this, use a URL decoding tool, such as URL Decoder, to figure out the exact URL destination.

Screenshot of an email with a suspicious link containing random characters

General Link Safety Tips

Scan the Link With a Link Scanner

Link scanners are websites and plug-ins that let you enter the URL of a suspicious link and check it for safety. Norton SafeWeb, URLVoid, and ScanURL are services that offer link safety checking. They index the remote destination and then report back on what was found so you never have to load the site on your own computer.

Enable Real-Time or Active Scanning in Anti-Malware Software

Take advantage of any active or real-time scanning options provided by your anti-malware software. These options may use more system resources, but it’s better to catch malware while it’s trying to enter your system rather than after your computer has already been infected.

Screenshot of Malwarebytes with real-time protection turned on

Keep Your Anti-Malware and Antivirus Software Up to Date

If your anti-malware or antivirus software doesn’t access the latest virus definitions, it’s can't catch the latest threats in the wild that might infect your machine. Make sure your software is set to auto-update on a regular basis and check the date of its last update to ensure that updates are actually taking place.

Consider Adding a Second-Opinion Malware Scanner

A second-opinion malware scanner can offer a second line of defense should your primary antivirus fail to detect a threat (this happens more than you would think). Some excellent second-opinion scanners, such as Malwarebytes and Hitman Pro, can make a real difference.