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The Computer Corner

REG COMPUTERS

By Charles Miller

 

In response to my advice never to ever click on links in emails, a reader wrote to me saying he was a tad confused as to what a link is.

Bob asked the following: if his trusted friend Joe emailed him a suggestion to look at a particular article on a website, the address of which was in a highlighted part of the email, was that a link? The answer is yes, and it could potentially be dangerous.

To briefly recap the subject of last week’s column, Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), used in almost all websites and email, makes it extremely simple to surf the Internet. Before HTML, it was necessary to type in long addresses. For example, try typing the following 68-character address: “http://www.atencionsanmiguel.org/2018/12/21/the-computer-corner-67/.” Simple, right?

A much simpler way to find that web page would be to simply type in “atencionsanmiguel.org” then click on “Columns” and then “Computer Corner.” Those are links concealing the address so that all one has to do is click on the link rather than very carefully type in a long, nonintuitive address.

In tech speak, that 68-character address is called a Universal Resource Locator (URL). The fact that a hyperlink conceals the address (the URL) so that the user does not see it is where the danger lies.

The 68-character address I gave above is not actually a very long one. Technically, a URL can contain thousands of characters, and this is where cyber crooks hide malicious instructions. The crooks know that the URL is not visible, only the hyperlink that says click here.

The crooks also know that even if someone did make the effort to find and read the address hidden under the hyperlink, few people could make any sense of it. And even after going to the trouble of examining a URL, web browsers like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer only display the first 2,000 characters, leaving everything else invisible…and that is typically where the bad guys hide things—like the instruction to download a virus to your computer.

Hyperlinks are timesavers, but they have a huge potential for abuse. When you visit a website and click on a link, you simply have to trust that website not to do anything malicious. Search engines such as Google are constantly checking for and blacklisting malicious URLs, so any major website is probably safe to visit. Not so the “high-risk” sites dedicated to gambling, porn, or pirated movies.

Getting back to Bob, he asked if it was okay to click on a link in an email from his trusted friend Joe because Joe had vetted the website. Well, that website itself might be safe, but the link to the website that Joe put in Bob’s email might not be.

The take-home lesson: clicking on links contained in emails is not safe, and there is no way to make it safe.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.

 

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