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Seven Practices for Safer Computing
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 practices.
1 - Protect your personal information.
It is 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 (FTC) survey, there are millions of victims a year. It is
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 ftc.gov/idtheft to learn what to
do if your identity is stolen.
Unfortunately, when it comes to crimes like
identity theft, you cannot entirely control whether you will become a
victim. But following these tips can help minimize your risk while you
If you are
asked for your personal information - your name, email or home
address, phone number, account numbers, or Social Security number -
find out how it is 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
If you get
an email or pop-up message asking for personal information, do not
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, like
using a phone number from directory assistance. In any case, do not
send your personal information via email because email is not a
secure transmission method.
If you are
shopping online, do not 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.
website privacy policies. They should explain what personal
information the website collects, how the information is used, and
should tell you whether 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 do not see a privacy
policy - or if you cannot understand it - consider doing business
2 - Know who you are dealing with.
And know what you are getting into. There are
dishonest people in the bricks and mortar world and on the Internet. But
online, you cannot judge an operator’s trustworthiness with a
gut-affirming look in the eye. It is remarkably simple for online
scammers to impersonate a legitimate business, so you need to know who
you are dealing with. If you are 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
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 identity.”
“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
is not. 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 do not ask for this information via email. If you
are directed to a website or told to call a phone number to update your
information, verify that the request is legitimate by calling the
company directly, using contact information from your account
statements. Do not click on links in suspicious emails, instead 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 problems.
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 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
License Agreement to be sure you understand the side effects of any free
3 - Use anti-virus and anti-spyware
software, as well as a firewall, and update them all regularly.
Dealing with anti-virus, anti-spyware, and
firewall protection may sound about as exciting as flossing your teeth,
but it is 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 daily 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.
Installed on your computer without your
consent, spyware software monitors or controls your computer use. It may
be used to send you pop-up ads, redirect your computer to websites,
monitor your Internet surfing, or record your keystrokes, which, in
turn, could lead to the theft of your personal information.
spyware is on a computer include:
of pop-up ads
browser — that is, a browser that takes you to sites other than
those you type into the address box
A sudden or
repeated change in your computer’s Internet home page
icons on the system tray at the bottom of your computer screen
downright slow performance when opening programs or saving files.
You can take steps to limit your
vulnerability to spyware:
operating system and Web browser software. Your operating system
(like Windows or Linux) may offer free software “patches” to close
holes in the system that spyware could exploit. Make sure to set
your browser security high enough to detect unauthorized downloads.
free software only from sites you know and trust. It can be
appealing to download free software like games, file sharing
programs, customized toolbars, or other programs that may change or
customize the functioning of your computer. Be aware, however, that
many free software applications bundle other software, including
Don’t be put off by the word “firewall”.
It is not necessary to fully understand how it works; it is 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 do not
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 does not 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.
4 - Be sure to set up your
operating system and Web browser software properly, and update them
Hackers also take advantage of Web
browsers (like Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, or Safari) and
operating system software (like Windows or Linux) that are unsecured.
Minimize 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. If possible, set your operating system to automatically
retrieve and install patches for you. If your system cannot 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 may be up to you to activate the filter.
If you are not using your computer for an
extended period, disconnect it from the Internet. When it is
disconnected, the computer does not send or receive information from the
Internet and is not vulnerable to hackers.
5 - Protect your passwords.
Keep your passwords in a secure place, and
out of plain view. Do not 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. To make it tougher for
passwords that have at least eight characters and include upper case
letters, lower case letters, numbers, and symbols. The longer
the password, the tougher it is to crack. A 12-character password is
stronger than one with eight characters.
common words: some hackers use programs that can try every word in
Do not use
your personal information, your login name, or adjacent keys on the
keyboard as passwords.
passwords regularly (at a minimum, every 90 days).
Do not use
the same password for each online account you access.
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
6 - Back up important files.
If you follow these tips, you are 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
or drive, 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:
disconnect your machine from the Internet. Then scan your entire
computer with fully updated anti-virus and anti-spyware software,
and update your firewall.
computer is infected and you cannot get it to recover any other way,
you can buy software to “wipe” — or erase — the hard drive. You
would then have to reinstall the operating system, and any other
files you wish to use.
to minimize the chances of another incident.
appropriate authorities by contacting:
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 future.
the FBI at
www.ic3.gov. To fight computer criminals, they need to hear from
If a scammer takes advantage of you
through an Internet auction, when you are 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 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 phishing.
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
ftc.gov/idtheft to learn how to minimize your risk of damage from a
potential theft of your identity.
This site is for educational purposes
and is not intended to provide legal advice. For specific advice
about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified
professional. Credits: Federal Trade Commission; Federal Bureau of
Investigation; Homeland Security; National Cyber Security Alliance.