How To Spot Fake Or Misleading Download Links

By Bec Oakley

If you want to stay safe while downloading files from the internet, it's really important to know the difference between a legitimate download link and an ad that's been styled to look like one.

These kinds of ads are sneaky, and designed to trick you into clicking on them for the purposes of downloading viruses and other malicious stuff, showing you inappropriate content or selling you something you didn't intend to buy.

If you're downloading Minecraft mods you'll almost certainly run into these kinds of tricky ads at some point, so let's take a look at how to spot them.

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?

It's common (and understandable) for mod creators and other website owners to use ads as a way to earn money. The two main ways they do this is by:

  • Renting ad space on their website
  • Using links that send you through a page with ads on it before taking you to the page that you wanted to go to

The file creator or website owner then earns a small commission for every visitor that views or clicks on one of these ads.

And that part is fine, it costs money to host and manage a website (and takes a lot of time to create a mod) so it's not unreasonable for people to use advertising as a way of recouping costs or making a profit from something they're giving to you for free.

The issue with advertising is that the site owners often don't have much (if any) control over which ads you will see, and some of these ad services aren't very picky about the advertisers they choose to work with. That means that at some point in your internet travels you're likely to be shown ads that contain links to either unwanted or malicious content - surveys that phish for personal security data, viruses and other malware, and products or services that you're tricked into buying or simply aren't interested in.

SO ARE ALL ADS BAD?

Nope! Many of the ads that you'll see will be for legitimate products or services. The danger lies with a particular type of ad - the ones which are styled to fool you into thinking it's a download link you were expecting to see, in the hopes that you'll be too busy or distracted to read the fine print and just click on the first thing you see that says 'Download'. If you're downloading Minecraft mods, you'll almost certainly come across a lot of these types of ads.

There are no advertising standards or watchdogs to protect you from this kind of trickery, so your only protection is to become a savvy internet user who knows what to look out for.... and that includes teaching your kids how to do it too.

There are two main places where you'll come across these kinds of ads when you're looking for Minecraft mods - ad spaces on websites or ad redirection services like AdFly. So let's take a look at some examples of both of these.

AD REDIRECTION SERVICES LIKE ADFLY

These services are the ones that take you to an intermediate stop along the way to the page or download you were heading to, in order to display an ad and earn a commission for the website owner. These ads are often designed to look like a legitimate website or download, which is especially misleading if you weren't expecting to be redirected in the first place.

Example 1:

You've finally found that mod that your son has been desperately wanting for months, so you eagerly click on the download link and the next thing you see is this:

Yay, your download is ready! NOPE. Everything below the blue banner is an ad, and has nothing to do with your download.

On any AdFly page the only thing you want to click on is the yellow SKIP AD button in the top right hand corner. That will take you to the page you were originally expecting to see.

 

Example 2:

Here's a really common ad that will pop up in that space below the blue banner on AdFly and other website ad spaces.

You might also see versions of the same ad involving Windows Media Player, Flash or just something generic like 'HD Player'.

This one is particularly tempting when you're trying to download a mod, because it looks urgent and most users know that Minecraft has something to do with Java. The fact that it says 'Required' also makes it feel like it's something you need to pay attention to.

The other tricky thing about ads like this is that it gives you an option that seems like you can ignore the ad, in this case the 'Install Later' button - but NEITHER of these buttons are safe to click on. Remember that on any AdFly page the only thing you want to click on is the yellow SKIP AD button in the top right hand corner.

 

Example 3:

Here's another ad that's styled to look like it might be the website you were expecting, except this time it's trying to trick you into signing up for an expensive SMS scam.

This one is designed to make you think that you need to subscribe before you can get your download. But read the fine print - by entering your phone number, you'll actually be signing up to have SMS video content sent to you three times a week at a cost of $5 per message.

Note some of the techniques it uses to trick you into clicking on the ad:

  • The generic 'Download Content' heading, to make you think you're on the download page you were headed to
  • The user rating and total downloads, to make you feel confident that you're somewhere popular, safe and trusted
  • The big green 'Submit' button, just sitting there begging you to click on it

And what is the only thing you want to click on an AdFly page? That's right, the yellow SKIP AD button in the top right hand corner!

Okay I think we've all graduated from AdFly class and can now move on to the other main source of ad nefariousness...

AD SPACES ON WEBSITES

These operate in the much the same way as the AdFly ads, except this time the ad is displayed as part of the website instead of taking you to a different page. On some sites it's really hard to tell which parts of the page are ads and which are legitimate website content.

Example 1:

This sample is from the website of a popular Minecraft mod. Can you spot the ads?

The ad currently showing in the top space is pretty easy to spot since it looks like an ad, but what about the other two?

The ad on the left with the ambiguous green 'Download Now' button is particularly tricky, and again notice that it shows a huge number of downloads underneath to make you feel like it can be trusted and is something you should have.

 

Example 2:

This is from the same mod website, this time on the downloads page. Click the link for the download and this is what you'll see:

Green download buttons all over the place. So which is the real one?

The real download link is the one highlighted in purple. As you can see, styling your ad to look like a green download button is obviously a really efficient way to get people to click on it.

 

Example 3:

Here are some screenshots from the website of another popular mod, again showing how easy it would be to mistake the ads for the real download link.

 

Example 4:

Here's another popular mod website, with a really common style of ad that you'll see a lot around the web.

Again, these are designed to make you click on them without thinking too much - the 'Start Download' provides a sense of urgency to capitalize on the fact that you're probably really keen to get your file.

The difference with these types of ads are that it's a little easier to see where they lead, because it's written underneath the link. Can you see it? The destination URL is written in teeny tiny faint letters below the big blue 'click-me-click-me-click-meeeeee' link.

TIPS FOR AVOIDING BAD LINKS AND STAYING SAFE

Educate yourself

Get to know the techniques that malicious or untrustworthy ads use to get your attention and trick you into clicking on them. Practice spotting them next time you're on a website or find yourself on AdFly.

Educate your kids

Knowing how to avoid dodgy content is probably one of the most important things to teach kids about using the internet. No matter what your rules are about their access to the web, they will almost certainly come across these kinds of ads at some point. Training them to be careful where they click can be the difference between happy web surfing and a weekend spent trying to disinfect your computer (or paying someone else big bucks to try and salvage it).

So teach them to be on the lookout for these kinds of ads. Look through some popular forums and mod sites together to see if you can find examples, and chat about the techniques they use to tempt you to click and the dangers involved with doing so.

Check before you click

Always take a moment or seven to check any link before you click on it:

  • Hover over the link or download button to see the URL - does it look like it leads to the site you were expecting?
  • Check if the link will pass through AdFly, so you know whether to expect to see ads (the URL will start with adf.ly).
  • Look for a direct link that doesn't pass through ad services like AdFly.
  • On AdFly pages, never click on anything below the blue banner. Only click on the yellow SKIP AD button (seriously, if you get nothing else out of this article...)
  • Check whether the download button tells you what you'll be downloading.
  • Is there fine print of any kind on the page where the download button is?

 

So there we go, a look at some of the things to watch out for. Even just becoming aware that these pitfalls exist, and trying hard to avoid the impulse to click on download links until you've checked them out, will really help to reduce your risk of accidentally falling prey to malicious content.

GOOD LUCK AND HAPPY INTERNETING!

 

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