URL Shortening services are ubiquitous nowadays, and there are many benefits to having a short link rather than a long and meaningless website address. However, as the final destination of the link is hidden, it is difficult to tell at a glance whether the link is safe or not.
URL shortening services hide the target address, taking something like
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-21323365 and turning it into
http://bit.ly/WXsskI which, while still cryptic, is at least shorter to type in. The problem is, when presented with the short URL, you can’t tell whether the address it refers to is safe. It could lead to a pornographic site which will land you in hot water if accessed at work, or to a site that will attempt to install malware on your computer.
It’s a sound principle never to click on a link sent to you in an email, instant message or SMS unless you both trust the sender and are expecting a link. Email accounts do get hacked occasionally and computers do pick up viruses, so simply knowing the person who sent you the message is no guarantee that a link is genuine. If a message seems out of character for a person, contact them to ask if they meant to send it to you in the first place.
Some services, like Bit.ly and TinyURL offer a facility where you can preview the link before actually visiting it. Prefixing a TinyURL address with ‘preview’ (e.g. http://preview.tinyurl.com/5nztbc) will tell you where the link leads to, while adding a + to a Bit.ly URL (e.g. http://bit.ly/WXsskI+) will do the same.
So, how can you protect yourself when using shortened URLs?
- Only click links you are expecting, and which come from a sender you trust
- Check with the sender if you receive an unexpected or uncharacteristic message
- Try the preview version of the shortened address, if the address is from a service that supports it, so that you can see the true destination before clicking it.
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