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Hackers and cyber criminals are constantly looking for new ways to trick internet users into exposing their personal and private data. These attacks are easier to execute than trying to infect an entire computer or local network, but the results can be just as damaging.

The term phishing applies to any instance where a message or website pretends to be part of a legitimate organization but in fact has malicious intent. Most begin with an email distribution, urging readers to click on a link and enter their passwords, social security numbers, or other identifying information.

When a person falls victim to a phishing scam, they may not realize the extent of the impact. Nowadays, stolen personal data is commonly sold on the dark web, a trend which will encourage more attacks in the future.

Even computer experts can sometimes be fooled by a phishing attempt, so it’s important to know what to watch for when opening your email and browsing the web. This article will describe the top five methods for quickly determining whether a website is real or fake.

1. Examine the URL Closely

Screen capture of illegitimate website with descriptions of potential problems (and why they are problems).

All websites on the public internet must use the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) with a registered domain name, which is the part of a web address that includes .com or .net. So when you first browse to a new website or click on an unfamiliar link, be sure to take a few extra seconds to review the URL in the address bar. If the address does not start with HTTP or HTTPS, close your browser right away as the site is unsafe.

Hackers will often buy domains that look like they are connected to a reputable company but actually redirect to a nefarious site. These addresses typically have misspellings in their name or use a different suffix.

Another trick that cyber criminals use is the disguising of a URL within a phishing email message. They may have a hyperlink that shows a familiar .com address, but when you click on it, the link will point to an entirely different location. When it comes to URLs, don’t trust anything except for what you see in the address bar at the top of your browser.

2. Check For the SSL Certificate

Overview of SSL encryption.

Websites with a secure sockets layer (SSL) certificate are equipped to handle requests over an encrypted connection. This means that all data sent between your browser and the website’s back-end servers cannot be decoded by any outside entities or hackers.

One of the first indications of a suspicious website is a missing or out of date SSL certificate. You can quickly check for this by looking at the left side of the address bar in your browser to see if a padlock icon is displayed. A simple padlock indicates a standard SSL certificate, while a green bar means that the website is using an extended validation SSL certificate, which offers some additional levels of security.

Modern browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox will automatically warn you when you try to load a website that has a missing or expired SSL certificate. To be extra careful, you can click on the padlock icon to view the status of the certificate and the entity who registered it. Never submit any credit card transactions or other personal data through websites that lack an SSL certificate.

3. Scan Developer Tools

When you load a website’s contents into your browser, the HTML displayed in the window does not always tell the full story. In fact, the most dangerous part of phishing websites is often hidden in JavaScript and other code that is invisible to the untrained eye.

Fortunately, you can use the Developer Tools option in Google Chrome to scan for suspicious threats. To launch it, open the Chrome menu, go to the “More tools” submenu, and choose the “Developer Tools” option. A new panel will open with various tabs of information.

Perform a full refresh of the webpage and first check the “Sources” tab to see what external content is being loaded by your browser. Then do the same in the “Network” tab. If you see an unfamiliar domain listed in the logs, consider closing your browser and manually navigating to the website with a typed URL. You can even examine the webpage’s HTML and JavaScript code through the “Elements” tab.

4. Look for Contact Information

Reputable websites will either include their contact information in a dedicated page or else within the footer at the bottom of the HTML content. If you are unsure whether to trust the company with your sensitive data, consider checking these locations to validate the website owner’s identity. If you can’t find any contact information at all, chances the site is dangerous or poorly maintained.

Website footers also typically include a link to a privacy policy, which is a critical piece of information for internet users concerned about how their data is stored and who prefer that it not end up being hawked for a few bucks on the Dark Web. The policy will explain what kind of information is tracked by the website, how long it is kept, and what a user needs to do to delete it.

5. Query the Website Registration

Overview of Whois query

Upon purchasing any public domain name on the internet, whether it’s by an individual or a large company, the new owner must register it through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Think of it like a DMV system for website registration.

This can come in handy when you want to check on the validity of a suspicious looking website. You can navigate to a ICANN lookup service and query any domain on the public internet with a WHOIS command.

The result of WHOIS query will indicate the legal name and address of website’s owner. It cannot tell you for sure whether a website is real or fake, but if the information provided does not look genuine or references a suspicious organization, you should avoid visiting the address entirely.

Final Thoughts

While phishers can be sneaky, the real problem lies in a gullible public or one too busy to take the time to learn how to properly vet websites. These tips we’ve just covered aren’t foolproof but can go a long ways towards ensuring you don’t hand over your credit card or other personal information to every hacker who throws a fake website in front of you.

It’s like crossing the road. Stop for a few seconds, look both directions, and make sure you have the lay of the land before proceeding. Good luck and thanks for reading.

Editor’s note: Will Ellis develops the guts beneath beautiful websites and can’t wait to see what the blockchain world will look like once the technology fully emerges. He invests in cryptocurrencies and studies history.

Photo of member Will Ellis