Staying Safe While Banking, Shopping or Surfing Online
“Cybercrime” may sound like the name of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but it would be hard to consider it anything close to a fantasy. People all over the world now spend a sizeable portion of their typical day online, whether it’s to check email, read the news or view their bank statement. Even those of us who don’t bother much with computers almost certainly have some personal information - credit card numbers, names and addresses - stored on one somewhere. Once this data is online, whether it’s under your control or not, there’s the possibility it could be taken and used illegally.
This doesn’t mean everyone should be constantly worried about becoming a victim of one of these crimes. Indeed, billions of people conduct their business online every day without incident. But just as you would buckle your seat belt in the unlikely case of an accident, you should be taking simple, yet effective, steps to protect yourself and your data from a cyberattack.
Protect your information
Whether it’s online banking or purchasing a gift from an online retailer, the vast majority of business conducted digitally is safe and secure. But criminals are constantly learning how to exploit weaknesses in these systems for a profit, and those who aren’t aware or prepared are at the greatest risk.
There’s no need to be afraid of falling prey to a cyber attack. While the businesses you depend on have likely already taken steps to protect themselves and you, there are a number of actions that can be taken to put you in control of your safety online.
Use strong passwords
The first and easiest way to keep yourself protected is to understand how criminals operate online. Anything you access online that involves sharing personal information is probably kept secure with a password that you choose. Stealing or guessing a password is hard for even the most cunning criminals, but it can be much easier to trick someone into giving it up.
That’s why a strong password is one of the best ways anyone can defend themselves online. As the U.S. Federal Communications Commission noted, a good password consists of a long string of letters, numbers and symbols. That makes the possibilities for a strong password essentially infinite. Here are some basic tips on what makes a weak, bad password:
- Easy to guess: One of the most common passwords online is simply “password.” Many people also use things like “12345,” “QWERTY,” or their name or birthday. Having an easy or obvious password makes it incredibly simple for someone to steal your information.
- Using the same password on many accounts: If just one account is compromised, it could allow one person to gain access to all the others with the same password.
- Hard to remember: A great password can be long and complicated, but it’s no good if you can’t memorize it.
If you avoid these pitfalls, you’ve already drastically reduced your chances of becoming a cybercrime victim. For your most important accounts, like online banking, email or your computer, create a different password for each that consists of at least eight characters that include letters, numbers and symbols. For example, “e5&T20N@” would be a strong password. If you can’t memorize it, you can always write it down - just remember that you will have to change it if you happen to lose whatever it’s written on.
Be aware of tricks of the trade
As mentioned previously, if a criminal can’t guess your password or other personal identification, they could try to trick you into giving it to them. In the digital world, this is called a phishing scam. In a basic example, a criminal might send out an email that appears to be from a reputable person or company. It might include a realistic logo and seem legitimate at first glance. Reading on, you might find that the email is asking you to provide your password or visit a website you don’t recognize.
Phishing scams lure people into providing sensitive information that criminals can use against them. That’s why the best way to avoid this common type of fraud is to stay vigilant.
- Look for signs that the email might not be legitimate. Poor design, spelling errors or unfamiliar return addresses are obvious signs that an email may be fraudulent.
- If you get a strange request via email from a friend or family member, even if it’s just to click a link, talk to them about it on the phone or in person. If they didn’t send it, their email may have been compromised.
- Likewise, if you get a request to provide personal information from what looks like a business you trust, find a way to contact them outside of email to confirm. Most businesses will never ask you to provide a password, credit card number or anything else sensitive via email.
No matter what you’re doing online, here are a few other standard tips:
- Stay safe on Wi-Fi: Wireless internet access (Wi-Fi) makes it easy to surf the web from home or in public, but these networks can also present an opportunity for criminals. If you’re using a public Wi-Fi hotspot, it’s best to avoid visiting any websites that require a password. If you have a wireless network at home, be sure it’s also protected with a strong password.
- Shopping smart: Before buying something online, check to make sure the website you’re visiting is secure. To do so, look at the URL near the top of the webpage. Secure websites will use the https:// prefix, and usually display a lock or something similar to indicate a safe connection.
- Tell your friends: Be sure family members, friends, co-workers and especially children are aware of how to stay safe online.