Easy ways to protect yourself online
You only have to take a look around while walking down the street to know that the internet age has well and truly arrived. People glued to their smartphones, reading Facebook posts, sending WhatsApp messages back and forth, checking out news sites… even while away from the computer, we’re on the internet all the time.
But that easy connectivity with the entire planet comes with some risks. The internet is as important to people today as newspapers were for previous generations. As you login to sites to browse, buy and watch, you’re counting on nobody else being able to see your stuff except you.
But your personal information can be incredibly useful to people with sinister intentions. And if your login details get compromised, the end result could be someone in a foreign country buying a ton of stuff on your credit card, or your bank account being drained of all its cash.
And then there’s the new danger of what’s called “ransomware” – a virus that pops up an alert telling you that your files have been locked and asking for a substantial amount of cash to unlock them.
Sounds pretty scary, right? Well, the good news is you can easily avoid any of this happening to you. You just need to make Internet safety a priority. It’ll cost you nothing, and can help ensure that you never have to tell your friends “I’ve been hacked!”
Use a Strong Password
There’s more people than you’d think using really, really simple passwords. If you’ve chosen “password” as your password, or maybe “ABC123”, then you’re one of them. Your password is the prime method of defence against other people getting into your stuff, so you want to make sure it’s one that’s really, really hard to guess. That doesn’t mean your new password has to be something like “gD5&%21o5_k” – you ideally want a password that’s hard to guess, but easy for you (and you alone) to remember. No, don’t use things like your birth date – that can be easily guessed if your birthday is known to the world via Facebook. But come up with passwords that make sense to you – words you’ll remember.
Use a Unique Password
This tip is very simple but very, very important – never, ever use the same password on different sites or services. If you do, it only takes one hack, leak or slip and the person that has your email/password combination for Netflix suddenly has access to everything you log into. You don’t want that. Use a method for making your passwords unique that you can easily remember but nobody can guess – or alternatively, use one of the excellent password manager apps that are around. 1password is one of the best – available for almost every mobile platform as well as PC/Mac, it (and other apps like it) let you set one single “master password” to get into the app, where you can store all your passwords for any time you forget one.
Watch Out for Email Scams
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” – you’ve heard that one before, and it’s the thing to remember whenever you’re checking your email. Those exclamation-filled announcements that you’ve won thousands of dollars? Unless you actually entered a contest and recognise the sender, they’re usually a scam designed to trick you into clicking a link. On the other end could be malicious software – or worse, a web page asking you for your details, which then get used to access your accounts. Be especially aware of emails that look like they’re from banks (they will NEVER ask you to “update your details”) or government agencies. If in doubt, call the company yourself and ask them.
Keep Windows or MacOS Up to Date
Microsoft and Apple regularly send out updates for their operating systems to plug newly discovered security holes that could cause you major problems. Many attackers try tricks with software (on web sites and elsewhere) designed to take advantage of those holes, and it’s the ones who don’t keep updated that are the targets. Make sure auto-updates are turned on (on Windows 10, they’re always on) so you’re always running the latest version.
Use a Good Antivirus Program
Antivirus software still plays a role in protecting you from internet nasties – though it’s increasingly more common for attackers to get in through trickery rather than malicious software. Still, you should always have a well-regarded antivirus program installed and running, one which updates at least daily to take account of the latest threats. Windows 10 comes with one built in (Windows Defender) but you can buy commercial antivirus programs that are even better at the job. Mac users have less to fear from viruses – but they’re still around. The best way to avoid viruses? Check out our next tip.
Avoid Pirated Software
Yes, free sounds tempting, but pirated (or “cracked”) software can easily be a point of entry for viruses and other malicious software – and the last thing you want to be installing alongside that “naughty” copy of Photoshop or Office is a silent “keylogger” that happily captures everything you type – including passwords – and sends it off to be collected and used. And we’ve already mentioned the newly-fashionable “ransomware”.
Don’t Install Plug-ins on Request
If you’re visiting a web site and suddenly get a pop-up telling you that you “need to update Flash” or that you “have a security problem in Windows” or the like, ignore it. This is one of the main ways that malicious software makers try to get you to willingly install their software, and it rarely ends well. These days, no major software updates itself via a web site request. Don’t fall for it!
Use a Second Email Address to Sign Up to Stuff
If you’re one of those people that loves signing up for contests, or gets asked a lot to sign up for an account just to visit a web site, don’t give them your main email address – the one you use to log in to the important things with. Instead, get yourself a second email address using one of the free services that are readily available – Gmail or Outlook, for example. That way you get a double bonus – if the site you’ve signed into turns out to be compromised, your main email address isn’t. And also, all of the inevitable advertising spam is kept out of your inbox!