With so many websites streaming television, film and sports it can be difficult to know which are legitimate and which provide illegal content that puts you both on the wrong side of the law and at risk for malware.

There’s rarely a single sign that a website provides unlicensed and unauthorized content but there are always clues if you know what to look for.

  • The site encourages use of a VPN (Virtual Private Network): There are legitimate security reasons to use a VPN. It provides online privacy and encrypts your Internet connection. It also provides anonymity, hiding your IP address and making your online actions nearly untraceable. Legitimate streaming sites do not suggest that you mask your IP address and conceal your behavior. They have no reason to do so because there is nothing to hide.
  • The site offers recent, popular releases: Legitimately free films and shows are almost always either old (in the public domain) or were not hits. If a free or unusually cheap site offers Avengers, Star Wars, Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones for free or for an unexpectedly low cost, beware.
  • The site has no mobile app, or the app is unavailable through popular app stores: Most legitimate streaming sites have mobile apps available through Apple, Google or other reputable app stores. If they provide mobile apps at all, pirated streaming sites offer them through obscure, third party stores that you likely haven’t heard of.
  •  The site presents a disclaimer denying responsibility if it provides copyrighted or illegal content: Legitimate sites do not require such a disclaimer because all of their content is licensed.
  • The site has the wrong kind of advertising: Sites that legally offer free content make money by showing ads that play periodically throughout the streaming content, like commercials. Ads on illegal sites are typically random surveys, hard to close pop-ups, and other annoying “click me” ads. And there are usually a lot of them.
  • The site looks bad: Illegal streaming services don’t worry about professional website design. They don’t put a premium on appearance, functionality or user experience the way legitimate sites do.

None of these signs in themselves mean a website necessarily provides illegal content. But a website with one or more obvious signs is one you want to avoid.