Access to information and entertainment, credit and financial services,
products from every corner of the world - even to your work - is
greater than earlier generations could ever have imagined. Thanks to the
Internet, you can order books, clothes, or appliances online; reserve a hotel
room across the ocean; download music and games; check your bank balance 24
hours a day; or access your workplace from thousands of miles away.
The flip-side, however, is that the Internet - and the anonymity it
affords - also can give online scammers, hackers, and identity thieves
access to your computer, personal information, finances, and more.
But with awareness as your safety net, you can minimize the chance of an
Internet mishap. Being on guard online helps you protect your information, your
computer, even yourself. To be safer and more secure online, adopt these seven
1. Protect your personal information. It's valuable.
Why? To an identity thief, your personal information can provide instant
access to your financial accounts, your credit record, and other assets.
If you think no one would be interested in your personal information, think
again. The reality is that anyone can be a victim of identity theft. In fact,
according to a Federal Trade Commission survey, there are almost 10 million
victims every year. It's often difficult to know how thieves obtained their
victims' personal information, and while it definitely can happen offline, some
cases start when online data is stolen. Visit http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft/ to learn what to do if your
identity is stolen.
Unfortunately, when it comes to crimes like identity theft, you can't
entirely control whether you will become a victim. But following these tips can
help minimize your risk while you're online:
2. Know who you're dealing with.
- If you're asked for your personal information - your name, email or
home address, phone number, account numbers, or Social Security number -
find out how it's going to be used and how it will be protected before you
share it. If you have children, teach them to not give out your last name,
your home address, or your phone number on the Internet.
- If you get an email or pop-up message asking for personal information,
don't reply or click on the link in the message. The safest course of action
is not to respond to requests for your personal or financial information. If
you believe there may be a need for such information by a company with whom
you have an account or placed an order, contact that company directly in a way
you know to be genuine. In any case, don't send your personal information via
email because email is not a secure transmission method.
- If you are shopping online, don't provide your personal or financial
information through a company's website until you have checked for indicators
that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser's status bar or a
website URL that begins "https:" (the "s" stands for "secure"). Unfortunately,
no indicator is foolproof; some scammers have forged security icons.
- Read website privacy policies. They should explain what personal
information the website collects, how the information is used, and whether it
you have the right to see what information the website has about you and what
security measures the company takes to protect your information. If you don't
doing business elsewhere.
And know what you're getting into. There are dishonest people in the bricks
and mortar world and on the Internet. But online, you can't judge an operator's
trustworthiness with a gut-affirming look in the eye. It's remarkably simple for
online scammers to impersonate a legitimate business, so you need to know whom
you're dealing with. If you're shopping online, check out the seller before you
buy. A legitimate business or individual seller should give you a physical
address and a working telephone number at which they can be contacted in case
you have problems.
PHISHING: Bait or Prey?
"We suspect an unauthorized transaction on your account. To ensure that
your account is not compromised, please click the link below and confirm your
"Phishers" send spam or pop-up messages claiming to be from a business or
organization that you might deal with - for example, an Internet service
provider (ISP), bank, online payment service, or even a government agency. The
message usually says that you need to "update" or "validate" your account
information. It might threaten some dire consequence if you don't respond. The
message directs you to a website that looks just like a legitimate
organization's, but isn't. The purpose of the bogus site? To trick you into
divulging your personal information so the operators can steal your identity and
run up bills or commit crimes in your name. Don't take the bait: never reply to
or click on links in email or pop-ups that ask for personal information.
Legitimate companies don't ask for this information via email. If you are
directed to a website to update your information, verify that the site is
legitimate by calling the company directly, using contact information from your
account statements. Or open a new browser window and type the URL into the
address field, watching that the actual URL of the site you visit doesn't change
and is still the one you intended to visit. Forward spam that is phishing for
information to firstname.lastname@example.org and to the
company, bank, or organization impersonated in the phishing email. Most
organizations have information on their websites about where to report
FREE SOFTWARE AND FILE-SHARING: Worth the hidden costs?
Every day, millions of computer users share files online. File-sharing can
give people access to a wealth of information, including music, games, and
software. How does it work? You download special software that connects your
computer to an informal network of other computers running the same software.
Millions of users could be connected to each other through this software at one
time. Often the software is free and easily accessible.
But file-sharing can have a number of risks. If you don't check the proper
settings, you could allow access not just to the files you intend to share, but
also to other information on your hard drive, like your tax returns, email
messages, medical records, photos, or other personal documents. In addition, you
may unwittingly download pornography labeled as something else. Or you may
download material that is protected by the copyright laws, which would mean you
could be breaking the law.
If you decide to use file-sharing software, set it up very carefully. Take
the time to read the End User Licensing Agreement to be sure you understand and
are willing to tolerate the side effects of any free downloads.
Many free downloads - whether from peers or businesses - come with
potentially undesirable side effects. Spyware is software installed without your
knowledge or consent that adversely affects your ability to use your computer,
sometimes by monitoring or controlling how you use it. To avoid spyware, resist
the urge to install any software unless you know exactly what it is. Your
anti-virus software may include anti-spyware capability that you can activate,
but if it doesn't, you can install separate anti-spyware software, and then use
it regularly to scan for and delete any spyware programs that may sneak onto
EMAIL ATTACHMENTS AND LINKS: Legitimate or virus-laden?
Most viruses sent over email or Instant Messenger won't damage your computer
without your participation. For example, you would have to open an email or
attachment that includes a virus or follow a link to a site that is programmed
to infect your computer. So hackers often lie to get you to open the email
attachment or click on a link. Some virus-laden emails appear to come from a
friend or colleague; some have an appealing file name, like "Fwd: FUNNY" or "Per
your request!"; others promise to clean a virus off your computer if you open it
or follow the link.
Don't open an email or attachment - even if it appears to be from a
friend or coworker - unless you are expecting it or know what it contains.
You can help others trust your attachments by including a text message
explaining what you're attaching.
3. Use anti-virus and anti-spyware software, as well as a firewall, and
update them all regularly.
Dealing with anti-virus and firewall protection may sound about as exciting
as flossing your teeth, but it's just as important as a preventive measure.
Having intense dental treatment is never fun; neither is dealing with the
effects of a preventable computer virus.
Anti-virus software protects your computer from viruses that can destroy your
data, slow your computer's performance, cause a crash, or even allow spammers to
send email through your account. It works by scanning your computer and your
incoming email for viruses, and then deleting them.
To be effective, your anti-virus software should update routinely with
antidotes to the latest "bugs" circulating through the Internet. Most commercial
anti-virus software includes a feature to download updates automatically when
you are on the Internet.
What to Look For and Where to Get It
You can download anti-virus software from the websites of software companies
or buy it in retail stores. Look for anti-virus software that:
- Recognizes current viruses, as well as older ones.
- Effectively reverses the damage.
- Updates automatically.
Don't be put off by the word "firewall." It's not necessary to fully
understand how it works; it's enough to know what it does and why you need it.
Firewalls help keep hackers from using your computer to send out your personal
information without your permission. While anti-virus software scans incoming
email and files, a firewall is like a guard, watching for outside attempts to
access your system and blocking communications to and from sources you don't
Some operating systems and hardware devices come with a built-in firewall
that may be shipped in the "off" mode. Make sure you turn it on. For your
firewall to be effective, it needs to be set up properly and updated regularly.
Check your online "Help" feature for specific instructions.
If your operating system doesn't include a firewall, get a separate software
firewall that runs in the background while you work, or install a hardware
firewall - an external device that includes firewall software. Several free
firewall software programs are available on the Internet.
Some spammers search the Internet for unprotected computers they can control
and use anonymously to send unwanted spam emails. If you don't have up-to-date
anti-virus protection and a firewall, spammers may try to install software that
lets them route email through your computer, often to thousands of recipients,
so that it appears to have come from your account. If this happens, you may
receive an overwhelming number of complaints from recipients, and your email
account could be shut down by your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
4. Be sure to set up your operating system and Web browser software
properly, and update them regularly.
Hackers also take advantage of Web browsers (like Internet Explorer or
Netscape) and operating system software (like Windows or Linux) that are
unsecured. Lessen your risk by changing the settings in your browser or
operating system and increasing your online security. Check the "Tools" or
"Options" menus for built-in security features. If you need help understanding
your choices, use your "Help" function.
Your operating system also may offer free software "patches" that close holes
in the system that hackers could exploit. In fact, some common operating systems
can be set to automatically retrieve and install patches for you. If your system
does not do this, bookmark the website for your system's manufacturer so you can
regularly visit and update your system with defenses against the latest attacks.
Updating can be as simple as one click. Your email software may help you avoid
viruses by giving you the ability to filter certain types of spam. It's up to
you to activate the filter.
If you're not using your computer for an extended period, turn it off or
unplug it from the phone or cable line. When it's off, the computer doesn't send
or receive information from the Internet and isn't vulnerable to hackers.
5. Protect your passwords.
Keep your passwords in a secure place, and out of plain view. Don't share
your passwords on the Internet, over email, or on the phone. Your Internet
Service Provider (ISP) should never ask for your password.
In addition, hackers may try to figure out your passwords to gain access to
your computer. You can make it tougher for them by:
One way to create a strong password is to think of a memorable phrase and use
the first letter of each word as your password, converting some letters into
numbers that resemble letters. For example, "How much wood could a woodchuck
chuck" would become HmWc@wC.
- Using passwords that have at least eight characters and include numbers or
- Avoiding common words: some hackers use programs that can try every word
in the dictionary.
- Not using your personal information, your login name, or adjacent keys on
the keyboard as passwords.
- Changing your passwords regularly (at a minimum, every 90 days).
- Not using the same password for each online account you access.
6. Back up important files.
If you follow these tips, you're more likely to be more secure online, free
of interference from hackers, viruses, and spammers. But no system is completely
secure. If you have important files stored on your computer, copy them onto a
removable disc, and store them in a safe place.
7. Learn who to contact if something goes wrong online
Hacking or Computer Virus
If your computer gets hacked or infected by a virus:
- Immediately unplug the phone or cable line from your machine. Then scan
your entire computer with fully updated anti-virus software, and update your
- Take steps to minimize the chances of another incident.
- Alert the appropriate authorities by contacting:
- your ISP and the hacker's ISP (if you can tell what it is). You can
usually find an ISP's email address on its website. Include information on
the incident from your firewall's log file. By alerting the ISP to the
problem on its system, you can help it prevent similar problems in the
- the FBI athttp://www.ifccfbi.gov/. To fight computer criminals, they
need to hear from you.
If a scammer takes advantage of you through an Internet auction, when you're
shopping online, or in any other way, report it to the Federal Trade Commission,
at ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet,
identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a
secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law
enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
If you get deceptive spam, including email phishing for your information,
forward it to email@example.com. Be sure to include
the full header of the email, including all routing information. You also may
report phishing email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Anti-Phishing Working Group, a consortium of ISPs, security vendors,
financial institutions and law enforcement agencies, uses these reports to fight
Divulged Personal Information
If you believe you have mistakenly given your personal information to a
fraudster, file a complaint at ftc.gov, and then visit the Federal Trade Commission's
Identity Theft website at http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft/ to learn how to minimize your
risk of damage from a potential theft of your identity.
Parental controls are provided by most ISPs, or are sold as separate
software. Remember that no software can substitute for parental supervision.
Talk to your kids about safe computing practices, as well as the things they're
seeing and doing online.
Article courtesy of onGuardOnline.gov and the FTC
Site copyright© 2002-2023, Surf-in-the-Spirit. All rights reserved.