Spelling is important on the Internet, but not just to make users look smart. Misspellings in messages may be embarrassing but a mistake in the various codes that manage the software that run the internet can have disastrous consequences. A single misplaced character can render a webpage impossible to read – or send the user into a sophisticated trap.

The software behind the screen is all based ultimately on the English language. But getting anything at all wrong in the data one enters can have worse consequences than were ever dreamed by grade-school teachers. And there are people out there just hoping and waiting for it to occur.

An example of this happened recently to SWCP’s own president’s mother, who was seeking one day to upgrade her copy of Microsoft Office. She bought the software package at a big box store. Like most such programs these days, it didn’t come with installation disks, but a web address and an access code that would enable her to download and install the program.

So she entered the URL, but she got it slightly wrong. The proper address was something like www.office.com, while what she entered was www.offuce.com. See the difference?

A legitimate-looking Microsoft landing page appeared, and she clicked on the activation link, which redirected her to an even more official-looking page at a different site where she had to enter her info. But she couldn’t get the code to work. A pop-up said there was a problem. So she availed herself of the convenient Tech Support link right there on the page and called. The helpful “technician” she talked to asked for remote access to scan her computer to determine what the glitch was. This she allowed and soon he had found a number of “problems”, he said, and began sending her a list of software fixes she would need to buy.

At this point, she told the tech that her son, who knew something about computers, was on his way over and would check it out for her. The man could not get off the line fast enough. He quickly erased the list, ended the remote session and hung up. When Mark got there, it soon became obvious that they had barely avoided a real headache.

What evils the scammer intended is not known. Stealing the authentic Microsoft installation code was likely a major part of it, but what else could have been done if the crook had the time and did not panic was limited only by his resources. At the very least, she would have wound up buying a bunch of software she didn’t need, probably loaded with spyware; at worst, her contacts and passwords might have been lifted and her machine bricked. But no malware of any kind was found, nor did it appear that any personal info was stolen or files were compromised. (Fortunately, when she did enter the right address, the real software installed without any difficulty.) But it was a very close call.

How common is it for criminals to hide behind such misspellings? Much more common than one would like to think. Experimentally entering in a dozen deliberately misspelled variations of www.office.com brought up about 6 domains that were for sale, several that wouldn’t load at all, 3 that led to places like the Office Max supply store or even to Open Office free software – and about the same number that redirected to spam sites. The ones that wouldn’t load might have also been bad but wouldn’t open until the rest of the address had been added. For some the misspelling wasn’t just in the name. One redirected link used “ww1” and another used “ww38” in the address.

It turns out that these are variations on a very old trick. Often such fake sites use the same spelling but a different top-level domain to prey on seekers unsure of the proper address, as one infamous site for years played off the White House by using “com” instead of “gov”. With hundreds of new top-level domains recently added, this is even more easily accomplished today than in years past.

Another factor that helps the scammers is the use of autocomplete in the location field, which make it simple to revisit a bad guess without re-entering the address. Scammers these days also use hyphens or other characters to generate addresses whose differences from the right ones are hard to spot.

The bottom line in all this is be very careful. If you are installing new software as this lady was, check the address you enter character by character against the printed card. Be as careful comparing it as you would if entering your credit card number. You can also reach the proper page by looking up the site’s address online and then navigating to the page.

The very fact that bad guys have bought fake domains to set up these traps should give all users pause. While users must depend upon online merchants and downloaded software, one should remember that the internet is a very crowded bazaar with no police patrols. Pickpockets, scam artists, and purveyors of shoddy or stolen merchandise abound unchecked.

So be very careful out there. Keep your hand on your wallet and your wits about you. And remember the wise advice of old Obi-Wan: “Trust your feelings.” If it seems too good to be true, or seems wrong, it probably is.