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It's easy to take a wrong turn online, and find yourself on a website that wasn't at all what you intended.

In some cases, a wrong turn can lead people to sites containing pornography or malicious software.

More commonly, people can find themselves on commercial sites aimed at selling products, rather than governmental websites that provide information.

I expect some readers had the latter experience last week, when I mistakenly listed the website for an insurance company with a similar address as floodsmart.gov, which is the official online home of the National Flood Insurance Program.

Sorry about that. For those still interested in looking up flood zones for particular properties, an even better way to find them is on msc.fema.gov, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's map center, where you can type in an address and quickly get a flood zone map that you can view online.

Sometimes, the government does what lots of businesses do, and they buy up different website addresses so that if people slip, they still end up in the right place. For example, if you type "fema.com" instead of "fema.gov" you'll get redirected to the correct site. No harm, no foul.

More often, it's all too easy to end up in the wrong place, for example:

An infamous example is the website of the U.S. president, whitehouse.gov. During the Clinton administration, if someone typed whitehouse.com by mistake, they ended up on a pornography site. Even today, that address still leads to a collection of risque links.

The website for the Internal Revenue Service is irs.gov. Type .com by mistake and you get a rather official-looking but privately run site owned by banks.com that includes links to commercial services that claim to settle tax debts.

Looking for the federal forms used for college financial aid? Fafsa.ed.gov is the U.S. Department of Education's website (FAFSA stands for "free application for federal student aid"). An online search, however, might lead you to priavetly owned .com business sites that sell form-preparation and filing services.

And it's not always as simple as remembering to type ".gov" to get to a government website. The S.C. Department of Revenue's website, for example. is sctax.org but the state Department of Motor Vehicles is at scdmvonline.com. Meanwhile, while dmv.org is a privately owned website.

Most of the privately owned websites do have disclaimers that say they are not official government websites, sometimes prominently displayed and sometimes not.

If you're using a search engine to find a website, look for results that say "official website" and that can avoid some confusion. Results that may appear correct may not be the ones you want. For example, mountpleasant.com will get you to the website of a winery in Missouri. The East Cooper town's website is tompsc.com.

Most times, ending up on the wrong site is more of an annoyance than a real problem, but if you're going to a website where you'll be making a purchase or a financial transaction it's important to make sure you're in the right place.

A secure web page, where it's relatively safe to enter your personal information, will always have the prefix "https" at the start of the address. Beware of clicking on web links in emails, even when the emails appear to come from trusted sources, such as your bank.

Scammers routinely send emails meant to direct people to official-looking websites designed to steal personal information. If you need to visit a website, type the address in yourself - and make sure it's the right one.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552

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