How to Avoid Scam Sites and Other Online Threats as You Work

online threats

Freelancers are usually contracted to do jobs that require research. While this certainly applies to writers who are tasked to submit anything from reviews and blogs to technical documents and articles, it also applies to a broader range of people: graphic designers who need to find inspiration and ideas, Web designers who need to spruce up on new tools or review coding techniques, and marketers who need to research trends or get information on a certain target market. Actually, it isn't that much of a stretch to say that research is something that everyone does on the Internet.

Unfortunately, the Internet isn't all that safe. According to Google's Safe Browsing report page, they've flagged around 15,000 phishing sites and a little more than 14,000 malware sites per week in May of 2015 alone—and these are just for websites that Google knows about because they have been flagged. Here's a short definition for these two common types of online threats:

·         Malware sites are websites that host malicious files. These sites may be spreading these files either knowingly (when a site is designed for the sole purpose of spreading malware), or unknowingly (when a site has been compromised or used to host malicious files). Malware is an all-encompassing term for any malicious software, and includes viruses, Trojans, keyloggers, and worms.

·         Phishing sites are sites that are set up to steal a user's information or credentials. These sites are usually set up to look like authentic sites—such as a fake Facebook page that people could log into—to trick users into entering their credentials. The term "phishing" basically refers to the act of fishing for credentials, and often leads to hacked accounts and identity theft.  

If you've ever been frustrated because something caused your computer to not work like it did yesterday, or because you found out that your online accounts have been hacked, it may be because you somehow landed on a malicious website. Here's how to spot them and avoid them while you work:

Watch what you click – "Unverified" refers to links to sites you don't recognize, or sent by unknown sources. When you're looking or researching information for work, always aim to get information from known sources such as established news sites or informational sites like Wikipedia. Carefully scrutinize the links by hovering over them and checking the target URL that appears at the bottom of your browser. Despite Google's best efforts to clean up the Internet, they can't catch everything, and new websites often slip through the cracks. This tip also applies to email links and links shared through social media—even if you know the sender.

Be wary of social media threats – These are very common. Threats on social media usually involve a link to a "hot" or "trending" topic, and if you're doing research on these types of topics, you have to be extra careful. Cybercriminals are likely to leverage these types of threats because they know that people are more likely to click on them (it's called "social engineering"). When a "hot topic" link takes you to a page that requires you to do something first—like those that ask you to share it first, those that require you to log in to your social media account again, or those that ask for extra information for "registration" purposes—they're likely to be scam or phishing sites. Remember: if it's a hot topic, then most established sites will already be talking about it. If your friend shared it, it's likely because the page asked them to, which means they've already been tricked.

Be mindful of what you say "yes" to – Finally, if you ever need to download anything, such as a tool or document that might help you, make sure you understand what you're signing up for. Some downloads require a few extra steps, and people are likely to just keep clicking "next" during the installation or download process. One of the most common methods is to offer a browser extension or app that changes the default browser. While not all of them are strictly "malicious," the effects can range from annoying—like getting popups and redirected searches—to downright dangerous if the add-on is spiked with malware (ever heard of Ransomware? If not, read up) or when it causes your browser to route you to malicious sites.

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Sean is a professional tech journalist and editor with more than a decade of experience covering consumer tech and information security for both print and online publications. He currently works for an IT security company by day and freelances at night.

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