A Beginner’s Guide to Malicious Websites

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Malicious websites are a simple way to trick innocent users into stealing their information. They are also a hotbed for malware, a type of malicious program designed to disrupt your device.

With the rise of malicious websites, it’s become increasingly important that you refine your surfing habits. So what exactly is a malicious website? What makes them malicious? And how do you spot and protect yourself from a site with vicious intent?

What Is a Malicious Website?

A malicious website is a site designed to harm your device. It mainly does this in two ways: either by spreading malware on your computer, or through storing sensitive information entered by you (such as credit card information, usernames, and passwords).

So why would you go out of your way and willingly enter your information on a creepy and weird looking website?

It’s a fair question, but here’s the thing: from the outside, a malicious website looks like just any another website. In fact, it can look like a duplicate copy of your bank’s webpage, or an online shopping portal.

But as soon as you visit it, the site will trigger a response which will result in malware downloading on your PC automatically. Alternatively, you might unsuspectingly enter all your personal details, and in turn, end up handing your data to hackers. Or sometimes both!

Scammers tend to tie their fake sites into popular search terms and trends too.

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At the peak of COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, government authorities were busy cracking down on such malicious websites, and found some 2,500 fraudulent sites. In the garb of offering products or services related to COVID-19 pandemic, hackers were using sites like these to steal user information.

How Does a Malicious Website Work?

Although the underlying motive of all malicious websites is the same, i.e. to harm your computer, they try to do it in a few different ways. These notably include drive-by-downloads and malvertising.

Through a drive-by download, you don’t even need to install a malicious program. Instead, as soon as you land on a webpage, the website will sneakily install malware on your device.

Hackers exploit essential features of websites, such as corrupt plugins, JavaScript, short links, etc. to spread by malware.

Malvertising is a way of spreading malware through online advertisements. This feat is made possible by infiltrating legitimate online advertisement networks and websites and injecting malware in there.

Related: What Is Malvertising and How Can You Prevent It?

As soon as an unsuspecting user clicks on an infected ad, their system gets infected with malware, or they are taken to another malicious websites.

Malvertising is possible in both malicious and otherwise authentic websites, as seen in the now infamous malvertising attack on Yahoo users, which linked to hundreds of suspicious domains.

How to Spot a Malicious Website

Although malicious websites look painfully similar to legit sites, with a few tricks and mindful browsing, you will be able to identify the website easily. Here are a few ways that you can spot a suspicious page.

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Pay close attention to URLs: Although the website will look similar to the original site that you want to visit, its URL, i.e. the address of the web page found at the top of your browser, will differ from that of the original website.

For example, if you are trying to visit www.gmail.com, the malicious site might have a URL such as ww3.gmails.com.

By paying a little attention, you can avoid getting yourself a lot of trouble. At other times, you might get link in emails or through messages. If you do not know the sender of that link, and if something doesn’t smell right, don’t click it.

In fact, you should always be suspicious about links in emails, as they can download viruses onto your device.

Check the site for HTTPS: Most legitimate websites use the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure, or HTTPS for short, instead of the simple HTTP. The HTTPS was introduced as a way to secure information transfer over the internet by running it through the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol.

This encrypts data in transit and verifies that the site is genuine. Google Chrome automatically warns you if a site doesn’t have a valid SSL certificate, which gives a site its HTTPS status.

Automatic prompts for downloads: If you are on a website and you see a pop-up screen to download software on your computer, save files, or something to that effect, you know you are on a malicious website. Leave the site as soon as possible and run an antivirus scan afterwards.

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If it shows a button to stop this download in-site, don’t click on it: it’s likely a malicious link too. Simply leave the site, preferably by shutting the tab or browser.

Use an updated and secure browser: Most modern web browsers such as Chrome and Firefox have in-built features to detect malicious websites. Firefox, for instance, checks sites you visit against lists of reported phishing and malware pages, a list which is downloaded and updated around every 30 minutes.

Keep an updated antivirus program: If you are looking for extra precautions, use an antivirus program and keep it updated. A quality antivirus suite will do wonders for your online security and will protect you from malicious websites, as well as a dearth of other online threats.

Related: Best Free Antivirus Programs

Many of them can be used for free, and if you like the service, you can move to a paid subscription.

It’s also important that you keep the browsers updated. Hackers are always tinkering with technologies, finding new loopholes to exploit. And as a result, technology companies are trying to maintain their security with regular updates that patch up any new vulnerabilities.

Avoid Visiting Malicious Websites

Now you’ve learned all the important bits of malicious websites. As amazing as the internet is, unfortunately, it’s also brimming with bad guys trying to profit from you.

It can be a bit tricky to identify malicious sites at first, but with a little cautious browsing and inculcating safe browsing habits, you can avoid such scams easily.

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