A couple of days ago I had the privilege of speaking to a group of writing students about the joys of blogging. Whilst many of them had never previously come across the concept of blogging and were intrigued by it, it didn’t take long for the question of online safety to come up. I must confess I was initially somewhat taken aback by their concerns, as I personally don’t worry much about getting virused, hacked, or falling victim to an online scam.
But as I pondered the question I realised that the reason I’m pretty relaxed about this stuff now is that over the years I’ve learned how to avoid most of the common pitfalls and recognise and deal with potentially threatening situations when they arise. Here are my top tips for staying safe online:
Install anti-virus and firewall software
Because we are now spending more time online than ever before, the risk of contracting a computer virus nowadays is a lot higher than in the past. Add to that the fact that so-called malware is becoming ever-more sophisticated and hopefully it’s fairly obvious that it’s in your best interest to use protection! There are many commercial and free options available, so there’s really no excuse not to.
Keep software up-to-date
Software companies regularly release patches and upgrades to their applications as new vulnerabilities are discovered and addressed, and it’s essential that you keep your installations updated, including but not limited to your operating system (eg Windows), internet browser (eg Internet Explorer), and email program (eg Outlook). And make sure your anti-virus software is kept current too – new viruses are produced all the time, and your anti-virus software needs to be informed of them.
Enable appropriate security settings
Browsers and other internet-enabled applications generally allow you to specify how you’d like to handle cookies, file downloads, and various types of dynamic content. It’s normally advisable to use the default values unless you understand the implications of changing them. Disable these settings at your peril!
Consider changing browser
Most people use Windows computers with Internet Explorer, and because of this, most malware is concentrated on finding vulnerabilities in these applications. Moving away from Windows is probably a step too far for most people, but it’s quite easy to switch to a different browser – I personally prefer Firefox.
Don’t open email attachments
Don’t open file attachments unless you’re sure they’re trustworthy. And just because a message appears to come from someone you know doesn’t necessarily mean it’s kosher – many viruses propagate by sending infected file attachments to everyone in the address book of an infected computer.
Be cautious about downloading files
Only download stuff from reputable sites.
Beware social engineering scams and phishing expeditions
Often the weakest part of a system is the human element – this is the basis of phishing scams. Online banking applications are technically very secure for obvious reasons, so scammers concentrate on duping unsuspecting bank customers into divulging their login information.
Log in via a secure connection
When logging into online accounts, ensure you’re connecting via a secure connection. Look out for the https in your address bar, and the padlock symbol at the bottom of the screen. Also make sure you type in the website url correctly, as it’s not uncommon for scammers to create dummy sites based on mis-spellings of popular website addresses. And above all, never click on a link in an unsolicited email inviting you to “confirm your personal information”.
Choose passwords wisely
A good password should contain a mixture of upper and lower-case letters, digits and symbols, and should not be a dictionary word.
Don’t give out personal information online
This includes your address, phone numbers, email address, mother’s maiden name, date of birth, etc. This type of information can be used to commit identity theft, which can wreak havoc on your credit rating and cause untold stress to its victims. Bear this in mind when updating your profile in social networking environments like Facebook.
The net must seem a scary place to someone who’s just getting online for the first time. But as long as you’re careful, it’s really not all that bad – the balance of good far outweighs the negative stuff, in my opinion. The best piece of advice I can give is simply to use your common sense! If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. And if you do run into something that seems strange, get a more experienced friend to check it out for you, or do a Google search and see if anyone else shares your suspicions.
If you’d like to add anything that I’ve missed, please feel free to leave your comment below.