Safe search settings and software will help you avoid danger sites: Internet Scambusters #568
Safe search is not just for kids!
Although search engine settings can stop them and you from getting links to offensive sites, they can't by themselves protect you from scam sites.
But there are lots of other things you can do to avoid the crooks when their websites turn up near the top of a search listing, as we explain in this week's issue.
And now for the main feature...
Safe Search Tips and Techniques
It's easy to assume when you do a search on the likes of Google, Bing or Yahoo! that you're getting the most popular results. Maybe, but don't assume it's a safe search result.
It's entirely possible that the top listings in your search are links to dubious websites, waiting to serve up spam advertising or offensive content, or to upload malware onto your PC.
So how did they get there and how can you avoid getting scammed, spammed or hacked this way?
The technicalities of getting a high placing on these search engines, as they're called, are beyond the scope of this report.
In fact, they're shrouded in secrecy. The search engine operators themselves use complex routines to check a site for a whole host of content, including particular words (keywords) and links to and from the site.
But they don't always spot the bad stuff, especially bogus sites selling non-existent products, ones passing themselves off as the official sites of well-known companies, or others simply hoping to mislead you.
For instance, in a blog comment we came across in our research for this issue, we came across this:
"I took the first listing when I was searching for help from XYZ," (we changed the company name) "using the term XYZcustomerservice. It turned out to be a tech company selling services. Fortunately, I used a credit card and checked further. I got a refund... I should have known better as I have been using a computer for over 10 years."
See how easy it is?
Optimizing a site so it scores highly and comes out at or near the top of a search is a highly specialized skill and, as you might suspect, crooks and tricksters are just as good at it as any of the professionals who do this for a living.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do either to eliminate visiting these sites or at least spot them when they point to trouble.
Safe Search Filters
Most search engines have settings that allow you to filter out "adult content," sites that you especially wouldn't want your children to encounter.
For example, in Google, if you click the "Settings" icon (or go to https://www.google.com/preferences when you're signed on) you'll see a check box that allows you to filter out explicit results.
You can even lock that selection using a password.
With Bing and Yahoo!, you can select one of three filter settings: Strict, Moderate or Off.
Site Checking Software
Many Internet security suites (note: security suites, not just anti-virus software) can embed a site safety checker into your browser that will flag up a suspicious or potentially unsafe website.
For example, the Norton/Symantec security software places a toolbar on your browser, with a separate "safe search" box.
It also puts a little green flag against search results for sites it considers safe and even has a "safe web" button that offers a full report on any site you have open on your screen.
Software security company, McAfee, offers a free browser plug-in called SiteAdvisor.
Another free one is AVG Secure Search or AVG LinkScanner for Mac.
In addition, you can get dedicated site safety checking software that will instantly block access to troublesome pages. These include Malwarebytes and Prevx.
Three points to note:
- We're not recommending any of the above products, just citing them as examples. You might be able to find something that better suits your needs.
- Site security checks are not infallible. Sometimes programs may not detect an unsafe site. Other times they might return a "false positive" -- saying a site is unsafe when it isn't.
- Link scanning and site checking apps are also available for Android mobile devices -- by far the most vulnerable mobiles.
Child safety apps and settings are available for the iPad and iPhone.
Do It Yourself
There are also several things you can do yourself to avoid getting a bad search result:
- Make sure you key in the search terms correctly. If you misspell a word or company name you could end up with a spoof site at the top of your list.
- When you get to a site by clicking a search engine link, check the address bar to see if it looks like it should.For instance, if it's supposed to be a secure web page, it should have "https" at the beginning.
Or if you think you're visiting a government department, it should end in ".gov" not ".com".
- A little known trick is to check with Google's own servers if a particular site has any record of carrying malware.Key in the following (without the quotes): "http://google.com/safebrowsing/diagnostic?site=" followed immediately by the name of the site (e.g. "scambusters.org") and you'll get what's called a diagnostic report for the site.
- Double-check a site's reputation by entering its name or website address into a search engine, along with words like "scam" or "complaint."
Search engines are fantastically convenient and are probably the main reason why Internet usage is so popular but for now at least, you can never be sure that the results they return are 100% reliable.
It's down to you, with the help of some useful software, to oversee your own safe search.
Time to close today, but we'll be back next week with another issue. See you then!