Friday, August 18, 2006

Who is Behind that Website? Ask Whois!

Who, exactly, stands behind that website on your screen? Does that web page really belong to the company it claims to represent?

A handy little applet, known as a "Whois", can tell you who is behind a web page before you make that final click or download that free offer.

What is a Whois?

A Whois is a software utility, or applet, that looks up information about individual websites. A Whois will reveal whatever information is currently available for any website.

A Whois will find the Domain Name and the IP Address so you will at least know the identity of the registered owner of the domain (website).

The exception is when an owner of a website lists it as "private". In that case, the only information available is whether the website really exists.

How much, or how little, information available for a Whois query depends on what the owner of the Domain Name decides to make public. Thankfully, most serious businesses provide ample information.

Companies usually want to make it easy for customers to get in touch; they list every possible way to reach them. They list telephone and fax numbers, physical (street) and postal addresses, and of course email contacts, in order to attract prospective customers.

A personal website owner, though, might be wiser to list only the minimum required data, or even register as "private". That way, she could avoid attracting unwanted sales pitches, spammers, or perhaps even worse.

Someone with a day job would not be at home during office hours, anyway. As well, who needs strangers from distant time zones phoning in the middle of the night? So he may not list his phone number.

How does a Whois work?

Not all Whois applications search ALL domains. Each Domain Registrar is responsible for maintaining a Whois over those domains (websites) registered with him. When the internet was in its infancy, each Whois was designated to search only one type of domain; there was one Whois for ".COM", another for ".ORG", and so on.

Even today, many Whois utilities are still dedicated to one domain type or to one Registrar (the agency where you have registered your Domain Name). To facilitate searching, we now have publicly accessible Whois software that can search all Domain Registrars plus all Hosting Servers for any type of domain.

We will consider two categories of Whois software:
a) Free Whois software
b) Affordable, commercial Whois software that you pay to use

Which type Whois is best for me?

Naturally, that depends on how you are going to use a Whois, something you will only know after having tried a few different Whois services.

While learning how to use a Whois, the free ones are easy on your pocketbook and deliver results that are just as accurate as any other model. They all search the same data bases, after all!

When using a free, no-frills, Whois you may have to Cut-and-Paste the URL (web address) from your browser address bar to the Whois search box manually.

The free Whois will then probably present the information in a more primitive format -- that is, in a long text-based list of line after line of data. This requires more work, as it is more difficult to glean the information that you need.

For infrequent use, a free Whois will do. It makes sense to start with free software until you know enough to decide whether to spend money on an easier program. It is quite likely that you may never need to buy a Whois program at all.

If you decide to buy faster, easier commercial Whois software, it can be had for $25 or so.

Any commercial program should install an icon in your browser toolbar so all you need do is click on the icon. Then the application reads the URL of the website currently in your browser window and looks it up automatically. No Cut-and-Paste contortions.

Finally, it should open a new, graphical "results" window where it displays the information in a neat, perceptible manner. You get all the data without the clutter of a text-based display.

What can a Whois tell you about a website?

Suppose you are searching the internet and you find an appealing site: "HONEST-SITE.COM". First, you want to see who they really are. A Whois search usually tells you:

i) The true Domain Name, hopefully, HONEST-SITE.COM in this instance.

ii) The IP Address of the website, e.g., 123.45.0.234 (four groups of numbers from 0-255, separated from one another by periods (dots). Try typing those numbers into your browser address bar -- it should bring up the same website again.

iii) Any other contact information available.
As well, you can expect to find information about who hosts the website (supplies the Web Server):

iv) The name of the Hosting Company (Domain Name Server or Web Server), e.g., "WORLDSBESTDOMAINSHOP.COM"

v) The IP Address of that Web Server, including contact email addresses and phone numbers

vi) The email addresses for their Administrator (ADMIN) and Webmaster (TECH).

A Whois reveals whatever information is available for any website, so you can see who stands behind it. And yes, as you have guessed by now, a Whois is a quick and ideal way to unmask faked (phishing) websites.