Seven Practices for Safe 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 throughout the day; or access your workplace from thousands of miles away.
The flip-side 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.
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'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 the FTC's ID Theft microsite 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. Following these tips can help minimize your risk while you're online:
- If you get an email or pop-up message asking for personal information, don't reply or click on the link in the message or open an attachment. 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 (e.g., by using information found on your monthly statement).
- 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.
2. Know who you're dealing with.
And know what you're getting into. There are dishonest people in the bricks and mortar world and on the Internet. 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 with whom you're dealing. 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?
Have you ever received a message like this:"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 emails (although they may not appear to be so) 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 in fact it 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: 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 phishing spam to the company, bank or organization impersonated in the phishing message so that action can be taken against the phisher. Most organizations have information on their websites about where to report problems. Phishing messages pretending to be from Mountain West Bank should be reported to email@example.com . There is no harm in reporting a message which you believe may be phishing, but in fact is not.
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 antivirus 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 your computer.
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, generally 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 try to trick you into opening the email attachment or clicking 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 it is that you are sending them.
3. Use antivirus and personal firewall software and update both regularly.
Dealing with antivirus 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.
Antivirus software helps protect your computer from viruses that can destroy your data, slow your computer's performance, cause your computer to 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 antivirus software should update routinely with antidotes to the latest "bugs" circulating through the Internet. Most commercial antivirus software includes a feature to download updates automatically when connected to the Internet.
What to Look For and Where to Get It
You can download antivirus software from the websites of software companies or buy it in retail stores. Look for antivirus 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 antivirus 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 permit.
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 the "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 antivirus 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 computer. If this happens, you may receive an overwhelming number of complaints from recipients, and your Internet access could be shut down by your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
4. 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 enabling or increasing the security settings in your browser or operating system. Check the "Tools" or "Options" menus for built-in security features. If you need help understanding your choices, use your "Help" function.
From time to time, your operating system will need new software "patches" or updates 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 or updates 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.
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 have to ask for your password.
In addition, hackers may try to guess your passwords in order to gain access to your computer and the information on it. You can make it tougher for them by:
- Using passwords that have at least eight characters and include numbers or symbols
- 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
One way to create a strong password is to think of a memorable phrase which is unique to you 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@wcC.
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. 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 antivirus software and update your firewall.
- Take steps to minimize the chances of another incident.
- Alert the appropriate authorities by contacting your ISP and alerting them to 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.
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 . 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 email, such as a message phishing for your information, forward it to the entity that is being wrongfully impersonated (for Mountain West Bank related phishing emails, forward to firstname.lastname@example.org ) Be sure to include the full header of the email, including all routing information. You also may report phishing email to email@example.com . 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 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.
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