I’m writing this post after growing increasingly frustrated with the ‘tips’ that news sites put out each time a prominent scam does the rounds. I find they tend to give a bunch of general, waffly information that misses the point entirely. I’m here to tell you how than you can avoid 99% of scams with this ‘one simple trick’:
Look At The URL
That’s this thing (aka. the web address):
The usual tip that gets dished out is to check for ‘https’ and the little padlock, and it’s true you should do that. If a site is asking for your credit card details and doesn’t have those two things then you should definitely get ‘outa there fast. Unfortunately any semi-sophisticated scam site will have no trouble putting those two things in place. Thus their absence is a very likely indicator of a scam but their presence is no guarantee that it isn’t one.
I’m going to use Air New Zealand as an example here, for no other reason than I’ve seen a few scams attempting to fool people into thinking they can get free flights. This same information is relevant for any website.
What you really need to be looking at is the domain and top-level domain of the URL. What is this techno-gibberish I speak of? Here’s a quick lesson:
A URL consists of a few parts, separated by periods:
- Protocol – either http or https. The ‘s’ stands for secure and tells you whether communication between your browser and the web server is encrypted.
- The sub-domain. This could simply be www or it could be mail in the case of mail.google.com. It could also be blah.something.else. Usually there is one sub-domain, but there can also be none or multiple. The good news is that we don’t care about it when checking for a scam site.
- The domain is the unique word(s) that the site developer purchases. It’s a bit like buying a bit of land – as long as you continue paying your rates, you can keep it.
- The top-level domain is the top of the hierarchy and is used to segment the internet into smaller chunks. .com is probably the most well known top-level domain. Country specific top-level domains are also common eg. .co.nz. There’s also .govt, .net and a whole swath of more esoteric ones.
- The path is everything following the first slash after the top-level domain. This is just how the website developer has organised their site and is also unimportant when identifying a scam site.
A website developer purchases a combination of domain & top-level domain which must be unique across the entire internet.
What is important is the domain and top-level domain and their proximity to each other in the URL. Look closely at the periods. The hyphens don’t count!
Often a scam site will register a longer domain that includes the same word(s) as those in the legitimate site. eg. https://www.airnewzealand-freeflights.co.nz. Or they’ll put the word(s) from the legitimate site into a sub-domain eg. https://airnewzealand.freeflights.co.nz. With your new knowledge of URLs you should see that these are obvious scams. For instance, in the second example the scammer has legitimately purchased the domain freeflights.co.nz and has then added a sub-domain to try and make it look like the real deal.
Here’s some other examples. The key thing is that you know what Air New Zealand’s normal/legit domain is. The best way to double check is just to do a Google search and check the first (non-ad) result:
Once you know that, see if you can identify whether these are safe sites or not. Note that I haven’t made them clickable like normal links (except for the last one).
- https://www.airnewzealand.co.nz/ – safe. The domain is airnewzealand which is what we expect.
- https://www.airnewzealnd.co.nz/ – not safe. Registering a domain with a slightly different spelling is a common trick among scammers.
- https://www.air.newzealand.co.nz/– not safe. The domain here is newzealand and they have added air as a subdomain to make it appear from a quick glance that is the same site.
- https://www.air.newzealand-online.co.nz/– not safe. For similiar resasons. The domain here is newzealand-online.
- https://flightbookings.airnewzealand.co.nz/vbook/actions/ext-search?searchLegs.originPoint=YVR&searchLegs.destinationPoint=&promoCode=&adults=0&children=0&tripType=return&searchType=flexible&internalRevenueSource=cms-book-book-now-button%7Cbook&_ga=2.147022391.1465521394.1536551535-1663654223.1536551535 – safe. Don’t be put off by the fact that it looks long and scary. All you need to care about is that airnewzealand is separated by a period in front and is the last part of the URL before the top-level domain .co.nz
- https://flightbookings-airnewzealand.co.nz/vbook/actions/ext-search?searchLegs.originPoint=YVR&searchLegs.destinationPoint=&promoCode=&adults=0&children=0&tripType=return&searchType=flexible&internalRevenueSource=cms-book-book-now-button%7Cbook&_ga=2.147022391.1465521394.1536551535-1663654223.1536551535 – not safe. Hopefully you noticed the hyphen before airnewzealand. The registered domain here is flightbookings-airnewzealand which is a completely different address.
- https://www.airnewzealand.co.nz – not safe. Be careful, the text you read on the page (or text, Facebook, WhatsApp…) may be pointing to a different site. Which URL did you end up on when you clicked this link? In general it’s OK if you follow a link and end up on a dodgy site, as long as you then check the URL and exit. Bad stuff only happens once you interact with the site in some way eg. download a file or enter personal information.
Hopefully this helps someone out there!