As you use the Internet, you may run into problems. Popup windows may appear on your screen. Strange email messages might come asking for bank information. You wonder if it is OK to order things with your credit card. You might begin wonder if it is safe to use the Internet at all.
The truth is that it is not safe to use the Internet if you are not aware of potential problems, don't take preventative measures, don't use caution, and don't take responsibility for your actions.
In real life, you wouldn't enter a big city with money falling out of your pockets or respond to any come-on that a character on the street might put to you. You wouldn't aimlessly cross streets into traffic, and you wouldn't send your children into the seediest bar. You wouldn't turn over information about yourself to just anyone. You wouldn't expect that everything you hear, see, or read is true. Instead, you would use common sense and the advice of trusted authorities. Same thing with the Internet. Don't think of the Internet as a corner of your living room. Instead, view it as a big city--a place that can be exciting, educational, and of great value to you--but a place where you should use common sense and caution to avoid the traps that uneducated users fall for.
Awareness is Your Best Defense
Knowning the kinds of risks that can occur with Internet use can help you avoid problems, simply because your attention can be raised when you see common scams.
- Be aware of phishing scams, where an email message directs you to a site which asks you for your personal information. Visit the Anti-Phishing Working Group site and become aware of this problem. Your best bet is to avoid any email message that tells you to enter personal information (user id, account numbers, social security or bank numbers) into a form. No matter how threatening the email seems, even if it threatens to close your account or if it states you must "reverify" your information, do not respond. If you are concerned about an account you have, login directly to the official Web site for that account (such as by using your bookmarks where you have saved the official Web site's URL). Do not follow a link in email sent to you. In general, never give your personal information to just anyone who asks for it online or off. Login only at the official Web page of stores or banks where you do business online--don't follow a link in an email message that might come to you.
- Be aware of the many kinds of scams and hoaxes by looking at the Snopes.com or FactCheck.org Web sites. Whenever you get an email that seems to be too good to be true or too dire to ignore, check reputable Web sites before acting. Your best bet is to ignore hoaxes--delete email containing chain letters or unsolicted commerical queries. The desire to get something for nothing, a great deal, inside information, solve your problems, or show your compassion is the hook behind the oldest con games around. And, in fact, con games from decades and centuries past happen routinely on the Internet and thrive because human nature hasn't changed in centuries.
- Use the official Web sites of your bank, credit card company, financial institution, or merchant and read their online safety and security instructions. Legitmate businesses want very much to keep your online experience safe and secure. Make use of the consumer information at these official sites.
- Be aware that the apparent sender's address of an email you receive may not be the true sender. It is possible to make it appear that you receive email from any email address, so if you get an email message that is worrisome or seems odd in some way, the message may not be legitimate. If you are an advanced email user, you may be able to look at the headers of the message and detect the true sender. If the message seems especially shocking or seems to spur you to action, ignore it, as it is likely that the message contains a virus or a query for a scam. This is the same as postal mail--someone can mock up an envelope with any return address, make it look "official," and send it to you.
- Don't be afraid of online transactions in favor of in-person transactions. Be aware of how to protect your identity, and while you definitely should use caution online, you may be putting yourself at greater risk by conducting transactions in the offline world or allowing papers with your account numbers to be available where people can get at them.
Prevention Work is Worth It
Protecting your computer and information from risks does take an investment of your time and effort, but considering the time and effort required to recover from a loss, it is well worth it.
- Protect yourself from security issues--keep your computer's operating system updated. For example, if you are using Microsoft Windows, visit www.microsoft.com and follow the instructions. You can also keep the automatic update feature of your computer turned on so that security patches are downloaded automatically.
- Install or use spam protection. Visit the Web site of your Internet Service Provider or email service provider and look for information they have have about preventing spam and viruses from reaching your email. You can also use Web-based mail (for example, Gmail) which is a good way to have the spam filtering built right into the online service without requiring you to install a client program on your computer other than a Web browser.
- Enable popup blocking features of your Web browser (see the Help section of your Web browser) or install popup blocking software. Popups can be annoying and can also lure you into scams or other problems. Check out the StopBadware.org site to find out how to avoid annoying popups as well as malicious software.
- Enable cookie protection in your Web browser. You shouldn't be afraid of cookies--they are useful for many legitimate purposes--but consider accepting cookies from only known, trusted Web sites.
- Avoid installing software from unknown sources. You can download freeware or shareware safely by using known and trusted archives, but still watch your computer for unusual activity after downloading any and using any software.
- Protect yourself from potential loss of data and create backup copies of your personal information. If your computer crashes or if there is a fire or flood in your home, you don't want to lose important personal information.
Here are some technqiues:
- One method is to use writeable CD's (CD-R or even DVD-R) to store information. Copy information you don't want to lose onto a disk and store the disk in a secure place away from your computer. Be sure to password protect the disk if it contains sensitive information or keep the disk in a safe deposit box. You must do this regularly to avoid losing current work.
- Alternately, use an online backup service that will automatically copy your files to a remote Internet server for storage and online retrieval. In considering such a service, look for encrypted transfer and storage of your information, and have this service run regularly to avoid losing current work.
Educate Yourself Continuously
There are many issues to know about to protect yourself, but don't get discouraged. A good site to use as an introduction is Connect Safely where you can access information about online safety, privacy, and security. The GetNetWise site recommends some software for purchase, but you may be able to put together a much cheaper (free) set of software programs for your personal security (see below, "Consider Installing Software").
Access more information at the Onguardonline.gov site to keep on top of issues having to do with online security and saftey.
Understand that the Internet--like life--will never be 100% safe. But do your best to know about potential problems and protect yourself.
Consider Installing Software
Find out recommended software for your computer to help increase your security. Computer magazines or their Web sites often run columns or articles covering security software. You need not spend a great deal of time or money to evaluate or buy security software or services.
I have a computer which uses the Windows operating system. I have installed and regularly use the following software programs that are free for personal use:
- AdGuard: protection from adware and related problems
- Spybot: detects and removes spyware of different kinds including toolbars, browser start page redirects, trackers, etc.
- WinPatrol: protects your computer from all kinds of insanity. I use the free version to control the startup programs on my computer.
- I have popup blocking turned on in my Web browser.
- I have the email spam filtering by using GMail.
- I use virus checking from AVG Anti-Virus free edition from Grisoft.com.
I use an online backup service (which is not free, but well worth the $). A software program from the service runs on my computer and checks to see if any of my information files have been updated in the past 24 hours. The program automatically backs up file changes to remote servers at geographically separate areas of the country every 24 hours or whenever I feel I need a backup. This way, if my computer is completely destroyed at any time, I'm never facing more than 24 hours of work lost.
In my Windows Security Center, I have my Automatic Updates and Virus Protection all turned ON. I have my Windows Firewall turned ON.