Is this website real? 5 ways to know when it’s fake.
In the 2003 film Shattered Glass, a journalist accused of fabricating a story goes down a personal rabbit hole to prove that a made-up source for his article is real. Not only does reporter Stephen Glass create a fake website for a tech company, he sets up a phone line that goes straight to voicemail so he can call his editor or fact checkers back and pretend to be someone at the nonexistent company.
While his clumsy attempt at website spoofing is a little rough around the edges, criminals are more sophisticated and go even further to make it seem like they’re running a real, upstanding company and not a fraudulent operation over the internet.
So, as a business owner or manager who buys from online companies on a frequent basis, how do you know the difference between what’s real and what’s fake?
Here’s a guide on what to look for when vetting a potential vendor or even a partner company that has an internet presence.
Check the URL — carefully
Like shell companies that are named to fool people into thinking they’re legitimate — Target Shops, Inc. vs Target Stores, Inc. — Domain names and URLs can also be created specifically to fool potential customers.
In 2017, a fake WhatsApp website fooled a large number of people into downloading adware. Using cyrillic characters that only look slightly different than the usual ones, the scammers were able to convince people that they could change the colors of their chat app with a download.
And just recently, a fake website with Thomas Cook branding scammed a number of people into giving personal information in exchange for the promise of a refund. Thomas Cook is still waging a campaign to convince people that the website is fake, and that the refunds will come from somewhere else — a legitimate source.
Be vigilant about extra or out of order URL words
One of the simplest ways to fool business owners and managers into thinking a website is real is by shoehorning in extra words into each URL, or even just rearranging words. For instance, the websites accounts.target.com vs target.accounts.com are so similar in name, it’s easy to get them confused. And that’s what criminals are counting on.
Look for broken links
Some types of websites, like legitimate government websites, are notorious for having broken links. This is often related to the sheer difficulty of organizing massive amounts of information. For scammers, however, many times the site will have one section built up to perfection, and others filled with 404 errors or blank pages. The expectation is that you, as a visitor, will only visit the area you’re interested in.
Think of these scam websites like you would an old-fashioned building with a false front. The front may look like there’s a second story, but in reality, there is none.
You can also dig deep into other pages on the website, to see the site as it has grown and changed over time. By using the Wayback Machine, a popular and free internet archive, you can go back years and see a site’s evolution. If there’s no history on the Wayback Machine, that doesn’t necessarily mean the site is fake, but it could raise some red flags.
This Target.com timeline from Wayback machine shows that the site started being archived in 1996. Chances are that a website called targetshops.com, for example, would not have this history — or any at all.
Use a google search
Open a google search and put closed quotes around the website URL you’re searching, and see what comes up. If the site is fake, you may know immediately based on what comes up in a search. For comparison purposes, here’s a search for “www.walmrt.com” vs www.walmart.com”
Look for https vs http
There are generally two types of connections being used by URLs: “http” and “https”. “Https” is the more secure of the two, and is usually used when someone is going to make a payment. If the site you come across uses “http” in a payment section, or the site is triggering your browser security, it may be a fake.
To protect your business from scammers, be even more meticulous in your research than the criminal trying to pass off their site as real.
Vetting an organization thoroughly provides that peace of mind that you’ve given your company’s funds the best chance at succeeding in these goals.