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Security

Google takes aim at imposter websites with new Chrome warning

Because most people don't notice when they're at the wrong website.

James Martin/CNET

It's hard to be sure where you are on the internet these days. Carefully checking the URL is one approach to avoiding danger. Trouble is, many fraudulent websites use tricks to make their URLs look like the real deal.

Now, Google wants to call them out.

To do that, the company is developing a new warning in its Chrome browser that appears when you're visiting a site that's mimicking a well-known web page. The warning could ask you, for example, if you actually meant to go to "paypal.com" when you were headed to a lookalike scam site called "paypa1.com" instead.

The warning is intended to take the pressure off you to notice when something's wrong with the URL. That's important because most people don't notice when they're headed off to a scam site, Google Chrome engineer Emily Stark said in a talk on Tuesday at the Enigma Conference, a security and privacy event.

"What people are seeing in the URL bar really just isn't helpful to them as a security mechanism," Stark said.

The warning could help make it harder to carry out on one of the most pervasive and effective hacking attacks out there -- phishing. If users heed Chrome warnings, it could save them from entering usernames, passwords or credit card information into websites controlled by criminals. It could also keep them from downloading malicious software at scam websites that could do things like encrypt their data and demand a ransom.

Scammy websites use a number of tricks to look legitimate in that URL field at the top of your web browser. They might use a slight misspelling, or swap out the number one for a lowercase letter L to look like a legitimate website. The latter is called a homograph attack, and it's powerful because it usually involves characters that the untrained eye will miss. 

The new warning, which is still being tested, alerts users to the fact that they aren't heading to a popular website or a website they've engaged with in the past. If the user wants to keep going in that direction, they can click "ignore." Stark said her team wanted to throw up a flag for users without overselling the danger.

"We designed this warning to be informational rather than scary," she said.

The talk follows comments Chrome security experts made in September about security problems involving URLs. At the time, Google said its engineers were researching how to make changes to the way Chrome handles URLs in order to improve safety. 

On Tuesday, Stark said changes Google and other software developers propose should be "incremental." Still, no idea is too crazy to at least consider, she said.

"Website identity is so, so broken that all ideas should be on the table," Stark said.