You saw this link, or maybe a “friend” sent a link for website “X” to you, and you want to see if there is any big risk of catching a virus or other malware by visiting the site. But how do you do that before you actually visit the site?
Make use of virtual machines and/or sandboxes. If the site is malicious, squash the VM or delete the contents of the sandbox and you’re almost assuredly safe. But what if these terms don’t mean much to you?
Regular guy/gal version:
For the average websurfer, VM’s and sandboxes aren’t realistic. They involve a considerable amount of learning that you’ll rarely make use of. So for simplicity, here are a couple tips that are easy to use, and will afford you just a little more protection from the evil hackers.
Two of the best antivirus/antimalware companies (out of the five I’d consider the best in the world) offer a site where you can paste or type the URL (web address) of the site you want to check before you visit, and the service is free. These companies also offer outstanding antivirus/antimalware software in free and premium editions (I’m not trying to advertise for them, especially since they offer free versions). I’ve used both their free software versions for many years with absolutely no complaint in usability (no IT degree required), quality, system footprint (memory usage and program size), and capability (never been compromised with either one). In other words, they don’t suck all your system resources like some premium-only, big name security software suites, they’re usable by the average person with no training, and they actually do their job right the first time. I recommend you bookmark these sites, or even add them to your favorites/bookmarks toolbar (just right-click the links on your PC and Add To Favorites or Bookmark):
Comodo Site Inspector – Malware Online Scanning at http://siteinspector.comodo.com/online_scan
AVG Online Virus Scanner (based at their Australia servers, but usable from any web connection) at http://www.avg.com.au/resources/web-page-scanner/
These should even work from mobile device browsers.
What else can I do to protect myself?:
Modern web browsers offer the ability to use private browsing sesions, where your cookies and web history are discarded from the browser and computer when you close the session. Internet Explorer version 8+ calls their’s “InPrivate Browsing” and you can access it by right-clicking the taskbar icon and choosing “Start InPrivate Browsing”, hitting “Ctrl” + “Shift” + “P” on the keyboard, or by clicking the gear icon at the top right corner of a regular browsing window and going to “Safety” and then “InPrivate Browsing”.
Some upgraded or premium antivirus packages offer automatic sandboxing of your browsing sessions, so you needn’t go off and learn any special skills on the use of sandboxes. Many will also pre-scan (or scan a site before you are allowed to visit it) to warn you of dangers and block potentially malicious sites. Some historically dangerous sites are reported back to the search engines like Bing and Google and they will blacklist the sites too. Heed these warnings and don’t click “Proceed Anyway”.
One of the best ways of protecting yourself is to make sure ALL the operating system updates are performed as soon as they are available. Windows Update and Microsoft Update usually do this automatically for you, unless you’ve disabled or changed that option (not a good choice unless you’re an advanced computer user). Update your antivirus/antimalware software, which, again, is usually done automatically. These programs offer you a chance to force an update check, which may be a really good idea if you want the absolute best protection before you venture off into cyberspace.
Sandboxes are like a digital version of the ones we had on the playgrounds. You run a program or browse the web inside the sandbox, and what’s in there, is supposed to stay in there and not leak out. Of course, if we get rambunctious, some sand is sure to spill out, so we can close the box and contain the problem, then get rid of the sand inside. This can eliminate some of the problems of risky web browsing, but it isn’t foolproof. Some troublemakers created special sand that leaks out of the boxes anyway and spills into your computer system and contaminates it. This means you still need antivirus/antimalware software. If sandboxing interests you, a couple tools are out there for you to try, including “Sandboxie“. I’d also recommend you check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandbox_(computer_security) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandbox_(software_development). Again, virtual machines may also be a partial solution, but these involve a considerable amount of training before the novice or amateur computer user would be able to safely employ one.
These tools are intended to help protect you from possibilities of infection with malware and viruses, but are not guaranteed to work 100% of the time. Simply put, risky websurfing activity carries risks and consequences. It’s analogous to the risk of an STD. Abstinence is the only certain method of protection. Therefore, I proffer you no guarantee, warranty, substitution, exchange, or refund, implicit or implied by using these tips and tools. I employ combinations of these methods, along with general websurfing behavioral awareness, and have been relatively protected from digital harm, but no method or even combination thereof is absolutely safe. Scams and phishing schemes are not checked nor are they checkable by antivirus/antimalware. You must use good judgment before submitting identifiable or personal information or clicking links on a site. Best wishes to you!