The internet brings the world to our fingertips. As beautiful as this may sound, this brave new technological world is not without its dangers. Just as there are thieves and con artists among us, hackers and schemers lurk online, preying on the naive. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to protect yourself and your family, your computer and your information.
October marks National Cyber Security Awareness Month, making this a month to arm ourselves with the knowledge to outsmart hackers and schemers.
Correctly setting up your computer is the first step to cyber security.
For example, cookies must be dealt with properly. Cookies, text-encrypted files, allow you easy website navigation. Your browser should be set to only accept cookies when the browser is open.
To keep dangerous viruses from worming their way into your computer, make sure that you turn on your antivirus program and firewall--and check their settings. These protective programs should regularly update themselves to keep up with new “virus definitions" as well as all the latest ways to block spyware and worms.
Only allow files to download and programs to install if you understand what they entail. If you did not tell a program to upgrade or install, don’t allow it to.
If your telephone or cable provider lent you a router for internet service, you most likely don’t need to worry about its security. If you purchased your own wireless router, be sure you not only secure it with a password, but that you rename the wireless network. If you keep the default manufacturer’s name, it can be easily hacked, exposing your private internet connection and your data.
Once your hardware and software is properly set up, common sense comes into play. For example, if your browser or antivirus program questions a website’s safety, don’t go to that website. Or if an advertisement, pop-up or website looks sketchy, do not mess with it. You probably have good reason to think so.
As you use the internet more and more, you will find that you transfer more and more of your personal information through the internet. Again, common sense and a critical eye will keep you from being fooled.
Don’t open messages from unknown sources. If it looks like an email, Facebook message or tweet from an unfamiliar person, delete or disregard it. Oftentimes people attempt to hack or defraud unsuspecting users through tempting invitations, such as shipping notifications, job offers and lottery alerts. In a strange but common case, a Nigerian letter circulates throughout the internet. It asks for help in placing large sums of money in overseas bank accounts, and it’s responsible for millions of dollars in fraud in the United States each year.
Don’t share personal information or passwords with other people. Try to keep from writing them down. When creating a password for a website, mix upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters for a minimum of 10 characters.
Before leaving a website, be sure to log out. If it’s a particularly private website, like your banking site, you may even log out and close the entire browser.
Before posting photos online, consider what personal information you're sharing with strangers. This can include the ages of children, your economic status, street addresses and more.
When making purchases online, beware of the security of your credit card. Instead of making a payment directly to a site, try to use an alternate payment service like PayPal, Google Checkout or Amazon. Look for an “https” in your browser’s address bar when sending card information--this means the site has a secure connection. Be sure to regularly your check credit card statements so you can dispute unauthorized charges.
These steps are just a starting place. The internet is always evolving, but there's help in keeping up with both the new tools and the new dangers. A wealth of resources offer additional information, including aarp.org. Just be sure you're asking a reputable source. With a little bit of preparation and forethought, you can explore web safely.
Before joining the staff of AARP Texas, I studied technology at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Have an idea for a future technology safety column in this occasional series? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy Darren Wood.