When I’m asked whether it is safe to download files from the internet I can only give the very irritating response of “it depends….”.
There is no absolute way of knowing if a download is safe, but there are some rules of thumb that I tend to apply:
- Have I downloaded safely from this site before?
- What prompted the question? If something’s just popped up out of the blue, as opposed to my asking for it, then I’m going to be more suspicious
- Does the message/website look real? Look for spelling errors, grammatical errors and peculiarities. Most major companies offering genuine downloads will have very few such problems and peculiarities whereas fakes/scammers are less good (but getting better!)
- Do logos, “legal statements”, etc look genuine and credible?
- Does my system automatically scan downloaded files? I’m going to feel more comfortable if I know my antivirus program either automatically or manually scans downloaded files.
- Does the filename look odd? If you think you are downloading an image and the filename is, for instance, piccy.jp.exe then steer clear as it’s the last characters after the last dot that tell you what type of file it is and a file ending in “.exe” is an executable file – ie a program, which is much more likely to be a virus or spyware than other file types. If you are expecting a picture or a document or a music file and you are being offerred an “executable file” (ending in .exe, .bat, .com, .pif, or .scr) then steer clear.
There is nothing you can do on the internet that is totally risk-free. By definition, you are connecting to other computers and you can never be absolutely certain that you are safe. However, this is no different from saying that every time you open your front door you are at risk from criminals. That doesn’t stop you from opening the door: it just means you take reasonable care and, without even realising it, you balance risks all the time and make judgments as to whether the person standing on your doorstep is genuine or not . Using the internet is the same, and I can’t see that changing.
The biggest single tip I can give to anyone seeking out specific downloads of programs, drivers, etc is to start at http://download.cnet.com/windows/ and see if you can download the file from there. Be careful, though, as there are many distractions on the site for downloads that you don’t want or need (eg utilities that offer to scan your system for “problems” – avoid them).
This is a huge, popular, and respected source of downloads. My judgment is that there’s still no guarantee that they won’t get caught out by offering a bad file but the chances are very very small and well within what I would call “acceptable risk”.
For a list of no fewer than 1515 file extensions and their descriptions, see http://filext.com/alphalist.php?extstart=^A