Getting a link in your email or social media inbox is an everyday thing for most of us. Whether it is a funny video that a friend wants to show us or a link with some data relevant to our work coming from our boss, the fact is that there will always be some links for you to open on the internet. Unfortunately, cybercriminals also know that hacking people via malicious links is one of the most common forms. Malicious links can contain malware that can steal your data or ransomware that can hold your computer hostage until you pay a certain sum of money. Thus, it is crucial to know how to recognize which links are safe to open and not. After all, it is always better, cheaper, and easier to prevent an issue than fix it.
The best way to protect yourself from malicious links you might receive is to ask yourself some questions before clicking on any link. To start with a simple one – do you trust the person who provided you with the link? Do you know them? Have you clicked on the links they sent before without any consequences? Is the link they sent something you would expect from them (a meme from a friend, a link with an important file you need to take a look at from a colleague)?
Do you think that person knows how to recognize which links are safe to send and dangerous? If you are not sure, it is always best to ask for clarification or confirmation that they sent the link. Alternatively, suppose the sender is someone you do not know. In that case, it is best not to click on the link. Especially if it looks like it is trying to catch your attention by mentioning your name in the subject matter, or if it claims to be from your bank, the police, or any similar important organization.
Another question that you should ask yourself is whether you trust the platform that the link was sent on? For example, if an official page or a group of some business posts a link, it is most likely safe (unless they get hacked, but that is an entirely different matter – still something you should vary of, of course.). However, if the link is posted on a random anonymous social media account or comes to your spam inbox, that means it can very quickly be malicious.
For example, if you see that the official Apple Twitter account posted a link to a contest where you can win an iPhone, it is quite a safe bet to click on the link and enter your data to join the contest. However, suppose an unofficial account posted the link, often newly made, with a low number of followers and typos or unusual characters in username or name. In that case, it is a scam, and you should most definitely not click on the link.
After the platform, let’s focus a bit more on the link itself. Does the site where it takes you to looks reliable? Is it the site you have visited before? If it seems suspicious, or you think it might be trying to copy how the link of some ‘real’ site would look, maybe try performing your search via the web and accessing the website, and finding what is in the link on your own.
Additionally, it would help if you were very careful of the shortened links. They can be handy, yes, but cybercriminals can use them to hide links that would otherwise look suspicious. So, even if the link is shortened by using a well-known provider, such as Bitly or goo.gl, it is always a good idea to use a site like Check ShortURL.
Finally, another point to focus on is slightly different from the others, as it does not have to do much with the email/message/link itself. It has to do with larger world events. It has been noticed that cybercriminals often try to capitalize on the interest surrounding a global event that gets ‘popular’ and talked about in a moment. It could be something positive, such as the Olympics or any other prominent sports or cultural event, or something negative, such as a natural disaster or a pandemic (yup, Covid-19 has given cybercriminals many new opportunities).
If you receive a link that seems to be on the topic regarding a topic that is currently hot in the news and on the internet, go through all of the previous steps before you click on it. Even then, be careful – cybercriminals are getting better at what they do every day, so we must be getting better at protecting ourselves too.