One of the most striking statistics to emerge from recently completed research by SophosLabs is that 80% of dangerous websites are actually legitimate sites that have been compromised by criminal hackers.

This makes it clear that it is no longer possible to easily avoid malware attacks on the web. If you visit a fixed number of sites regularly, using trusted bookmarks, and don’t stray from your “short list.” then you will be far safer than if you follow links from one page to another just surfing aimlessly.

Another piece of research sponsored by Cisco (the 2013 Annual Security Report), further reveals that the highest concentration of online “risky” sites does not come from previously thought to be “high risk” sites such as pornography, overseas pharmaceutical, religious oriented content or gambling sites, but from everyday sites such as shopping and search. This was found to be the case because a not previously recognised source of threats revealed by the report is that sites that generate revenue through online advertisements are near the top of the list of those that deliver malicious content.

This is logical because if you are thinking like a criminal hacker, you want to have the opportunity to infect the most sites and therefore visitors to those sites. Since so many sites “survive” through advertising revenue, served up through advertising networks they participate in, then as a hacker, you will try to infect the ad networks so that the ads they serve also deliver your malicious payload as well.

Now that you know this, you can see why you could pre-determine how safe a site might be to visit based on the following criteria:

1.) How popular is the site?

Facebook is one of the most visited sites on the web and as a consequence attracts malware programmers and scammers like no other. More popular, more risk, less popular, less risk – all other things being equal.

2) Does the site accept third party advertisements?

For example, Amazon is less risky to visit because it does not display advertising from third party ad networks. Your favorite blogs probably serve up ads from one or more ad networks, on the other hand.

3.) Does the site directly control its content?

For example, your banking site is very safe because it is there for one purpose and doesn’t display content (or ads) from others. Search engines (Google, Bing, etc.), on the other hand, index pages and images from others that could be poisoned – although they take extraordinary efforts to avoid this. Sites like Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter present content provided by others and can easily include links to malicious code.

4.) Is the site run by a large company?

Large companies can afford the IT staff required to keep the site “clean” of malware, whereas your mom and pop store or restaurant probably just doesn’t have the budget (and certainly not the in-house expertise) to perform the maintenance required to keep a website secure.

There are other criteria, to be sure, but the ones mentioned above should be obvious to anyone.

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