How to identify a malicious website

Malicious websites come in two forms; they host malware or are used to phish for sensitive information, tricking users into revealing sensitive data such as login credentials for online banking websites. But when a website looks legitimate, what should you look out for?

Malicious websites are increasingly used to host ‘exploit kits’ which probe visitors’ browsers to identify security vulnerabilities that can be exploited without requiring any user interaction. If a vulnerability is detected, malware can be installed automatically on the computer or network.

In other cases, malware may require some user interaction before it is installed. Visitors may be tricked into downloading a security software, for example, by being informed their computer is already infected with malware. Or, they may be asked to download a legitimate looking file that is in fact corrupt.

Learning how to identify a malicious website is important if you want to prevent your computer from being infected. There are some easy ways to tell if a website could be dangerous:

The URL contains HTTP – not HTTPS

The ‘S’ in HTTPS stands for ‘secure’ and indicates that a website protects any information transferred by encoding it. This isn’t foolproof however – cyber criminals have been known to use and HTTPS websites so this is not a guaranteed way to determine a site’s legitimacy.

You can’t find a privacy policy

Hoax websites are run by administrators that aren’t likely to care much about privacy policies. Legitimate websites have a privacy policy to indicate their commitment to protecting your data, and your relationship with the company as a ‘user’ or ‘customer’. A cyber criminal is unlikely to have such policies!

Missing contact information

If you’re unable to find contact information on a website, this is a huge red flag. Any reputable business will make their contact details visible to help legitimate customers.

The website asks you to download software, save a file, or run a program – or a download starts automatically (known as a ‘drive-by download’)

Unless you are actively seeking out a software to download or have selected to download a file, don’t trust any automated pop-ups.

A warning appears stating that your device is already infected with malware

It’s unlikely that a malware infection can be determined by simply visiting a website. Anti-virus software will be able to determine if your device is infected with malware by performing a deep scan of your device.

A warning appears stating that your plug-ins or browser are out of date

If you are told your browser is out of date, visit the official browser website and check your version number. Only ever download updates from official websites.

You have won a competition or free prize draw

You may also be offered free money or vouchers that require you to enter your credit card or banking information. If it sounds too good to be true – it is!

Key things to remember

If in doubt, do not download any files.

Make sure you have installed anti-virus software and that it’s up to date.

If you have accidentally visited a drive-by download site, by the time that you have connected it may be too late to prevent malware from being downloaded. To protect against drive by downloads you must ensure that your browser, add-ons, and plugins are 100% up to date. You should also:

  • Update your software quickly and constantly. Perhaps configure your device to install updates automatically
  • Remove unnecessary software and plug-ins
  • Use a firewall
  • Disable Java and JavaScript
  • Use web-filtering software
  • Install an ad blocker