How to Quickly Check If a Link or Website Is Safe Before Clicking (2024 Guide)

As we spend more of our lives online for work, entertainment, socializing and more, cybercrime continues to rise at an alarming rate. One of the most prevalent ways criminals deliver malware and steal sensitive data is through malicious links and websites.

Consider these eye-opening statistics:

  • Malware increased by 358% in 2020, with a new attack happening every 39 seconds on average (University of Maryland)
  • 30% of data breaches involved phishing, and 94% of malware was delivered via email (Verizon DBIR 2019)
  • Cybercrime costs organizations an average of $13 million per year (Accenture)
  • Google detects over 40 billion pages with malicious code and phishing content (Google Transparency Report)

Suffice it to say, the web is rife with digital traps just waiting to ensnare careless browsers. Clicking the wrong link by mistake can infect your computer with destructive viruses, compromise your accounts and finances, and put your private data into criminals‘ hands.

Types of Dangerous Links and Websites to Watch Out For

Not all threats are created equal. Here are some of the most common dangers you may find in your inbox, search results and online travels:

1. Phishing Pages

These fraudulent sites are designed to impersonate legitimate companies in order to trick you into entering your login credentials, credit card numbers, social security details, and other sensitive info. They often spoof banks, payment processors, social networks, and ecommerce stores. Telltale signs include slight misspellings in the URL, shoddy logos/layouts, and domains that don‘t match the real company site.

2. Drive-By Malware Downloads

Hackers can code a web page so that simply visiting it, without even clicking or downloading anything, automatically installs infectious malware on your machine. These drive-by downloads can saddle you with spyware, adware, trojans, bots, ransomware, and more. Malicious sites or hacked legitimate sites can both spread malware.

3. Tech Support Scams

Landing on certain pages may suddenly bombard you with scary popups claiming your device is infected, out-of-date, or full of hardware issues that require immediate ‘support.‘ Do not fall for it or call the provided ‘helpline‘ number, as fake technicians will pressure you into granting them remote access to your computer and likely steal your data or install malware. Microsoft and Apple do not serve such unsolicited alerts.

4. Rogue Browser Extensions and Plugins

Fake ‘security‘ programs advertised in popups or scammy ads often contain malicious code that spies on your browsing activity, captures login details, inserts unwanted ads, redirects your web searches, and wreaks havoc on your system. Be very discerning about what you allow to install as an add-on or extension in your browser.

How to Check If a Link or Website Is Secure and Legitimate

Now that we know the biggest baddies to avoid online, let‘s go over the steps you should take to determine whether an unfamiliar link is safe to click:

1. Look for HTTPS and SSL Certificates

When you visit a website, check the address bar for:

  • HTTPS:// at the beginning of the URL
  • A closed padlock icon to the left of the URL
  • The company name to the left of the URL (on certain browsers/devices)

These indicate that the site has an SSL certificate, which means any data exchanged will be encrypted. However, hackers can still obtain SSL certificates, so HTTPS doesn‘t guarantee a site is safe, just that it‘s using a secure connection. It‘s important to confirm the URL is actually what you expect as well.

For example, a phishing site may have HTTPS but the URL might be spoofed like amaz0n-ltd.net instead of the real amazon.com. So while HTTPS is a positive sign, continue assessing the URL and page.

2. Double Check the Domain and Page URL

Hover over hyperlinked text or images (without clicking) to preview the full URL it will take you to. On mobile, press and hold the link to view the URL. Things to watch for:

  • Is it abnormally long or complex without needing to be?
  • Does it contain random strings of numbers or gibberish?
  • Are there subtle misspellings, extra punctuation or strange suffixes? (amaz0n.net, paypal-help.xyz, secure-bankofamerica.co, etc.)
  • Does it claim to be a well-known site but the domain looks off? (goggle.com, faceboook.org, citibank.biz, etc.)
  • Is it mostly numbers separated by dots, like an IP address?

If anything seems suspicious, navigate manually to the known, official site to confirm it matches the URL in question before proceeding. For example, go directly to paypal.com rather than trusting a "paypal.com.security.com" link.

3. Assess the Content and Design for Red Flags

Once you have carefully checked the URL, review the site‘s actual content and layout for signs of a scam or spoof:

  • Is the logo low-quality, blurry, or simply not the correct/official one?
  • Are there spelling and grammatical errors throughout the text?
  • Are there annoying popups, flashing download buttons, or autoplay audio/video ads?
  • Is the site trying to scare you into calling a tech support number or downloading software?
  • Do photos of ‘staff‘ or offices look like generic stock images?
  • Is there very little content on the page besides a login box or form?
  • When you go to the About or Contact page, is the information missing or suspect?

Cross reference the site with the brand/company‘s legitimate online presence. Do they acknowledge and link to this site from their official channels? When in doubt, contact the real company through known support lines to inquire about the validity of the page in question.

4. Run the URL Through Link Checkers

For added peace of mind, use one or more respected link checking tools to analyze a URL before visiting it. These sites and plugins will scan the link against blacklists of known scams, phishing, and malware. While not infallible, they offer an easy first line of defense.

Some of the best free online link checkers include:

For example, here is what Google‘s Safe Browsing Tool shows for a suspicious URL:

Google Safe Browsing Results

And here is a Norton Safe Web report indicating a very high risk site:

Norton Safe Web Scan Results

I recommend bookmarking your favorite 2-3 link checkers for quick access whenever you encounter a questionable link. It only takes a few seconds to check but can save you from a world of hurt!

Safe Browsing Best Practices and Tools

Fortunately, beyond manually analyzing each link, there are other lines of defense and safety precautions you can employ to protect your data and devices:

Use Antivirus and Anti-Malware Software

A good antivirus tool with real-time scanning and web protection can block drive-by downloads, malicious sites, phishing attempts, viruses, and other threats. Look for well-rated options from providers like McAfee, Norton, Kaspersky, Bitdefender, etc.

Keep Your Browser and Plugins Updated

When vulnerabilities are discovered in web browsers like Chrome, Firefox, and Safari, the developers work quickly to release patches in the next update. The same goes for add-ons, extensions and plugins. Keeping everything updated ensures you have the latest security features and fixes to stay safe online.

Leverage Built-In Browser Protections

Most modern browsers have some level of built-in defenses against bad websites, downloads and phishing, such as:

  • Google Safe Browsing in Chrome
  • Microsoft SmartScreen in Edge
  • Firefox‘s Phishing and Malware Protection

While not perfect, enabling these native browser safeguards adds an extra checkpoint against threats.

Be Cautious with Shortened Links

Link shorteners like bit.ly or tinyurl can be very handy for social media posts but can also hide the true destination URL behind a short, nondescript string of characters. Hackers often abuse link shorteners to conceal malicious URLs, so be wary of clicking shortened links from unfamiliar sources. Consider using a service like UnShorten.It to reveal the actual URL first.

Use a Password Manager

Password managers like LastPass or 1Password are great for creating strong, unique passwords for every account, but they have another big benefit – autofill. If you visit a phishing site posing as a site you have saved in the password manager, it won‘t recognize and autofill your password. This offers a clue that you may not be on the legit site after all.

Stay Alert for Social Engineering Scams

Sometimes a malicious link can come from what appears to be a person or organization you know and trust. Hackers may compromise legitimate accounts or spoof real email addresses and websites to send malware links or conduct "spear phishing."

Maintain a healthy skepticism of generic-sounding messages with links asking you to provide login details, payment info, or other sensitive data. When in doubt, independently verify the sender‘s identity and go directly to official sites rather than through provided links.

Wrapping Up

While the web will always harbor digital dangers, proactively checking the safety of links and sites is the foundation of practicing good online hygiene. Combine that with reliable antivirus protection, browser security features, and overall vigilance to sidestep the majority of potential pitfalls as you work and play online.

I hope you found this guide useful! Be sure to share it with your family, friends and colleagues so we can all enjoy a safer internet together. Stay tuned for more in-depth cybersecurity tips and tutorials. Happy (and secure) surfing!