A Beginners Guide to protecting yourself and your data online
You’d be forgiven for thinking that in our overwhelmingly digital age – an era during which we have grown accustomed to sharing our every fleeting thought, and even eating habits, with our several hundred online ‘friends’ – that the notion of privacy is now dead and buried.
Why worry about our privacy, our data, and our all-round online presence when we’re casually sharing our most intimate thoughts, feelings, and comings and goings with complete strangers, a la Twitter? What’s the worst that could happen? And how about the argument that we have safety in anonymity – everybody else is behaving just as recklessly as I am so why would somebody pick me out?
Well believe it or not, privacy is not only something which matters in the modern digital age – it is undoubtedly something which, in terms of consideration, we should be more mindful of than ever before. As many have found to their cost, there are a number of ways in which acting carelessly online can carry a very high cost.
This isn’t to say that you should live in fear each and every time you go online – there is little more chance of you having your data stolen than there is of you being robbed at a cashpoint! The internet is a great place to be but, equally, just take care as you go about your online business.
Remember this: when we use the internet, the internet is watching
Our reliance on the internet for all things personal and professional, as well as the range of digital devices needed to access it, means that not only do we now give up an unprecedented amount of information about ourselves to what is often a public sphere – cyber-criminals and hackers, who are able to hack our accounts and access our sensitive information, can go as far as to steal our identities and even dip into our bank accounts at the mere click of a button.
This may sound a little over dramatised and far-fetched, but consider this: when we’re not knowingly and wilfully giving up huge amounts of information about ourselves, about our behaviours and lifestyles on social media platforms and online forums, we’re keying our bank details into computers as we manage our bank accounts online or pay for the food shop, buy new clothes, holidays and Christmas presents. That is when we’re not using our private email accounts (which we criminally take for granted) as the focal point and home-base via which we manage our lives, both on and offline.
In short, it’s obvious that the internet is privy to, and holds a lot of information about us, but it’s the sheer scale of the amount and sensitivity of the information held, and the number of individuals and organisations of dubious character who have potential access to it which is of cause for concern. When we are online, it is important to remember that the internet and any number of potential hackers and scam-artists are watching.
Here are a few things you can do to make your time spent online a whole lot safer.
Use anti-spyware and anti-virus software. Oh, and a firewall
To keep those pesky hackers and scammers out of your computer or mobile, check that your pre-installed firewall is activated and install anti-virus and anti-spyware programmes. Be sure to check that these programmes and settings don’t conflict and invalidate each other, however – while such occurrences are rare, this can occasionally happen when you are using software from more than one third-party.
A firewall will prevent unauthorised individuals from hacking into your device, while anti-virus and anti-spyware software is self-explanatory – they will destroy viruses and identify programmes like keyloggers and trojans which might be used to learn your passwords and usernames, and your bank details.
Don’t make your passwords lazy or obvious
If you find that your email, Facebook, or any other account has been hacked, it’s very often the case that somebody has done so because they’ve discovered your password. That or you’ve fallen victim to a brute force attack, whereby a program cycles through a database of potential passwords in order to break into your account.
With this in mind, make sure that you never use a password that anybody could guess or figure out – any part of your name, be it first, middle or surname, your mother’s maiden name, a pet’s name or the name of your favourite team spring to mind! In addition to this, be sure to make your chosen password alphanumeric, and include capital letters and punctuation to further complicate it. This means that if your password was ‘wallflower’, you could garble your password to make it ‘WA11fl0wer!?’, for example. You could even go one step further than this and avoid using real words. Just be sure to write your passwords on a pad somewhere and pop them in a safe place, or save them in an online vault.
Oh, and one last thing: don’t use the same password for different accounts. If you do and somebody hacks one of your accounts, they will then be able to go on and hack everything else.
And one more: if you do get hacked, change your passwords immediately and use your anti-virus software to run a full scan of your computer, just in case there are any more viruses lurking hidden on your machine somewhere.
Be careful what you share on Facebook and never discuss personal details in online forums
To all intents and purposes, everything you post onto a social media platform is public – Twitter certainly is, and even if your Facebook account privacy settings is set to high, do you really know and trust all of your Facebook ‘friends’? And that’s before we even broach the fact that your current employer or any curious future employer could see any comments that you’ve made onto a Facebook group or page you’ve liked which makes any comments or feedback public.
Taking all this into account, be careful what you post online – never write anything which could compromise you at a later date, and never give out personal details, like your address, email address, phone number, bank details etc. You might as well be yelling this information out into the street. Also, never broadcast that you are going on holiday – it would be less than ideal to come back to your house to find that you’ve been burgled. This all applies doubly so to any online forums or message boards which you might use too.
Beware of phishing: Never ever click on links or open files/attachments in emails from strangers
This is perhaps stating the obvious but never open a file or email attachment of some sort which has been sent to you by somebody you don’t know – viruses are typically spread this way. Attachments which are a .exe file are, as a rule, bad news.
Phishing emails come in all shapes and sizes, and are now so sophisticated that they can be difficult to tell apart from authentic branded emails. This being the case, it’s really easy be extremely easy to be hoodwinked into clicking links, giving details or opening files. If you’re in any doubt after having received an email from a company, be it your bank or a utilities provider, contact the company in question to get confirmation that the email really was sent by them
Of course it goes without saying that unprompted emails from an unknown sender with a seemingly safe link should never be opened – just don’t.
Be wary of emails from friends and contacts too. Never open suspicious looking emails
While you must be vigilant of the above, it should also be mentioned that you are equally at risk of falling victim to a hack from an email sent by a friend or contact.
If somebody you know has their email account hacked, it could be used to send an attachment containing a virus which could infect your computer and spread the virus on. So if you get an email and attachment which is uncharacteristic and suspicious looking, play it safe – don’t open it, just delete it instead. Emails or Facebook messages with a message such as ‘Hey, can’t believe these pictures of you are on the internet,’ along with a non-descript short-link are the kind of seemingly ‘normal’ emails that should cause alarm.
Avoid responding to unsolicited emails from international scam-artists offering dubious multi-million dollar fortunes
Like your author, have you recently received an unsolicited email from a Togolese law firm, informing you that a long, long, long lost relative has passed away when the boat that they were travelling in sank in a storm off of the Ghanaian coast? You have been left $US35,000,000 in your deceased relatives will, and yet the money cannot be paid into your account until you have paid the Togolese law firm a ‘release fee’ or retainer of some sort. Or a Nigerian investment broker is offering you a great rate of return should you choose to invest in a bold new construction project.
These types of phishing type emails, while hilarious, are nonetheless fraudulent. Should you send them money, or offer up your bank account details so that you can claim your surprise ‘inheritance’ from a mystery law firm or Nigerian prince? Nope, of course you shouldn’t. And as tempting as it might be to wind them up a little, just delete the email instead.
Follow a banks security advice and recommendations when doing your online banking
Bearing in mind the number of hazards, hackers and scammers that are online, it is important to be especially careful when you are managing your financial affairs via online banking.
Every bank out there has now released an app which is secure and will protect you from hackers, viruses and keyloggers – be sure to download and use it. This will give your bank account a far greater level of protection. Also, only complete online transactions when you can see that the URL begins with ‘https’, not ‘http’ – this extra ‘s’ signals that the webpage is secure.
And one last thing: make sure that the computer you are using to do your online banking on is protected with anti-virus software. Doing your online banking on a computer which is riddled with viruses is simply asking for trouble.
Use a secure WIFI network when you are doing anything sensitive or private online. And where possible, try to avoid using your mobile phone for such activity
On an unsecured network it is easy for people to see what you are doing online – you have no idea who is watching what you’re doing, or who is recording your every online move and keystroke. Hackers, scammers and opportunists can and do use public networks to their advantage.
Mobile phones can be especially susceptible to hacking – make sure that you have an anti-virus app installed and, once again, never use public or unknown WIFI networks for any sensitive activity, such as banking, unless it is unavoidable. You can read further into Wi-Fi security if you wish to find out more about network security here.
Be safe and use your common sense
Your online safety is paramount – the subject is one which is often underestimated by most of us, and yet it is something which is incredible important to consider. Thousands upon thousands of people in Britain fall victim to identity fraud each year, or find that they have been scammed out of their hard-earned money – it goes without saying that people can lose thousands of pounds in the process. In some cases, unfortunate individuals have lost everything.
By following these basic steps you will, for the most part, be protected against such fraud and financial loss. It is impossible to be 100% safe at all times when you’re going about your online dealings, but a little vigilance and common sense can go a long way. Again, the chances of being caught out by online crooks and scammers is fairly slim, and there is no need to worry too much when you are going about your daily online activities. In short, have fun but be careful.
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