October 27, 2012, 7:25 AM — You know the old saying, "Look before you leap"? Let's give that a modern-day twist: Look before you click.
See that screenshot up top? It's from popular daily-download site Giveaway of the Day. On the left, there's a description of the day's freebie. On the right, a big, tempting Download button. Obviously that's what you click to get the software, right?
Wrong. That's actually an ad for something called Download Manager, which itself is actually a collection of garbage you don't want: toolbars, adware, and so on. But many an unsuspecting user will get so far as to install all of it before realizing it's not the program they wanted. Quite the opposite.
This is an increasingly common tactic among advertisers and even spyware distributors: ads that masquerade as Download buttons. When you're looking at a download page for any given piece of software, your eye naturally goes to the large, colorful button that plainly says "Download"--and your mouse pointer instinctively follows.
But that can lead to big trouble: spyware, viruses, and other system-clogging junk.
As I said earlier, look before you click. Here are three ways to help protect yourself from fake Download buttons:
1. Don't just click the first Download option you see. You might need to scroll down the page a bit to find the right one, and it might be a simple link rather than a big, sexy button. Many download pages are heavily cluttered with ads and other distractions designed to trick you into clicking the wrong thing. Take your time, and look carefully.
2. Still not sure? Mouse over the button or link (but don't click!) and then look near the bottom of your browser: You should see a little box containing the associated URL for that item. If the domain matches the site you're on, you should be in the clear. If it's long and/or fishy-looking, or contains telltale words like "adservices," it's probably a fake.
3. Stick with reputable download sites. (Hint: Most torrent sites? Not reputable.) Even better, whenever possible, download software directly from the developer's site. You're much less likely to run into fake-out ads.
Have you ever fallen victim to a fake Download button or link? If so, where did it happen? And have you learned any tricks for avoiding them? Let's hear from you in the comments.
Contributing Editor Rick Broida writes about business and consumer technology. Ask for help with your PC hassles at email@example.com, or try the treasure trove of helpful folks in the PC World Community Forums. Sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week.