How to Test a Suspicious Link Without Clicking It

Does that link look a little strange? Here's how to tell

Illustration of URL on computer

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Do you have click anxiety? It's that feeling you get right before you click a link that looks a little fishy. You ask yourself, Am I going to get a virus by clicking this? Sometimes you click it, sometimes you don't.

Cut through the indecision by thinking critically about the links you encounter.

The Link is a Shortened Link

Screenshot of a spam email with a shortened link

Link shortening services such as bit.ly and others are popular choices for fitting a link into the confines of a Twitter post. However, link shortening is also a method used by malware distributors and phishers to conceal the true destinations of their links.

Obviously, if a link is shortened, you can't tell whether it's bad or good just by looking at it, so use a tool designed to inspect short links. They'll reveal the true destination of a short link without actually following it. Explore the dangers of short links for details on how to view a short link's destination.

The Link Came to You in an Unsolicited Email

Screenshot of an unsolicited bank email with a suspicious link

If you received an unsolicited email that is supposedly from your bank asking you to "verify your information" then you are probably the target of a phishing attack.

Even if the link to your bank in the email looks legitimate, you shouldn't click it as it could be a phishing link in disguise. Always visit your bank's website by entering its address directly into your browser or through a bookmark you made yourself. Never trust links in e-mails, text messages, pop-ups, etc.

The Link has a Bunch of Strange Characters in It

Screenshot of an email with a suspicious link containing random characters

Oftentimes, hackers and malware distributors will try to conceal the destination of malware or phishing sites by using what is known as URL encoding. For example, the letter A that has been URL-encoded 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 unless you have a URL decoding tool or translation table handy.

If you see a bunch of % symbols in the URL, beware.

How to Check a Suspicious Link Without Clicking It

Several tools help you inspect links without clicking through to activate them.

Expand Shortened Links

Screenshot of CheckShortURL showing what a short URL really is

Expand a short link by using a service such as CheckShortURL or by loading a browser plug-in that will show you a short link's destination by right-clicking the short link. Some link expander sites will go the extra mile and will let you know if the link is on a list of known "bad sites."

Scan the Link with a Link Scanner

Norton SafeWeb, URLVoid, ScanURL, and others offer varying degrees of link safety checking. These services often index the remote destination then present a report or a summary of what it finds, without you having to load the site on your own computer.

Enable the Real-time or Active Scanning Option in Your Antimalware Software

Screenshot of Malwarebytes with real-time protection turned on

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

Keep Your Antimalware and Antivirus Software Up to Date

If your antimalware or antivirus software doesn’t access the latest virus definitions, it’s not going to be able to 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 often than you would think). Some excellent second opinion scanners, such as Malwarebytes and Hitman Pro, can make a real difference.