The Internet has made our lives easier in many ways. We now shop online, keep in touch with friends, pay bills, market our businesses and keep up with current affairs in cyberspace.
The Internet is also incredibly useful for finding information that would have required a trip to the local library 30 years ago. Need to check out the 12th game of the 1927 world chess championship or find the best hotel in Santa Cruz, Bolivia? Want a quick recipe for pumpkin soup or a tutorial on video editing? You can get all this and more in a matter of minutes online.
Criminals are also excited about this wealth of information, because it gives them access to personal details that can be used for unlawful activities. Staying safe online is mostly about being alert to the dangers.
Here are some useful tips for increasing your Internet safety:
Don’t become a victim of identity theft
Thieves only need to collect a few pieces of information before they have enough to steal your identity.
Identity theft is a serious issue in Australia. Criminals increasingly turn to the Internet for easy pickings. In 1 out of 5 instances, your stolen identification details are used to gain credit or apply for a loan. Around a third of Australian identity theft victims don’t even realise anything has happened until they receive an official notification or query from a government agency.1
Although people often use the terms interchangeably, there are distinct differences between identity theft and identity fraud. Identity theft occurs when a thief accesses your personal information in order to impersonate you (in person or online), mainly to open accounts in your name. They might even use your details to take control of your existing accounts.
Identity fraud is a little different: instead of stealing your identity, the thief uses your details to create a fictitious person in order to defraud merchants. Both identity theft and identity fraud are sinister crimes that affect all Australians, because merchants, credit card issuers, utility companies and other entities must factor these crimes into their pricing structure, resulting in higher costs for everyone.
Thieves only need to collect a few pieces of information before they have enough to steal your identity. They’re after details like your full name (especially as it appears on your credit card), date and place of birth, email address, physical address (including previous residences), passport or driver’s license numbers, credit card details (expiration date, PIN, card number and security code), where you do your banking, phone number, employment history, club memberships and even your hobbies.
- It’s impossible to completely eliminate identity theft, but there are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of becoming a victim:
- Keep your smartphone, tablet and other portable devices safe – they may have as much personal information in them as your purse or wallet.
- Check your bank and superannuation statements regularly to check for unusual activity.
- Unless you know and trust the sender, never open links or attachments in an email. Type a known address into your browser instead. Clicking on a link may lead you to a bogus lookalike site designed to extract personal details.
- Cut down on the personal information you share on social media sites – these are a favourite hunting ground for identity thieves.
- Improve your passwords, and don’t use the same password for everything.
- Check your credit history regularly through an Australian credit reporting agency (CheckYourCredit.com.au, MyCreditFile.com.au or Tasmanian Collection Service, for instance).
- Don’t do any online banking or make payments on public computers – use your PC at home instead.
- Only download apps from reputable sources. Viruses are easily transmitted to your devices through dodgy downloading sites.
- Change your browser settings to disable pop-ups. Pop-ups are commonly used by criminals to install spying or key-stroke detection programs onto your computer to access banking details, passwords and other information.
- Install quality, up-to-date anti-virus software on your PC and devices.
If you believe you have become a victim of identity theft, notify the police immediately as well as any financial institutions or businesses that might be affected.
How secure are your passwords?
A longer password is more secure than a short one. Don’t use the same password for everything – this makes it much too easy for criminals.
Password security is one of the most commonly ignored aspects of online safety. If someone discovers your passwords, they have immediate access to all your personal online information – including your financial details.
Ideally, you should never write passwords down. If you do, don’t store them anywhere near your computer. Don’t hide your password under your mouse pad or keyboard, on a note taped to the underside of your desk, under your landline phone or in the top drawer of your desk. Leaving your password in a ‘clever’ spot near your computer is a bit like leaving your front door house key under the mat, on top of the doorsill or wedged under a potted plant: thieves know all about these obvious hiding places.
Passwords should be a random collection of letters (in both upper and lower case), numbers and symbols. Avoid choices that are easy to guess (like 123456 or the word ‘password’), and change your passwords regularly.
A longer password is more secure than a short one.
Don’t use the same password for everything – this makes it much too easy for criminals.
If keeping track of all your passwords becomes too much, there are a number of password management systems (some free, some not) that can assist you.
Safety on social media
We use social media sites to keep in touch with friends, search for employment, support our favourite organisations and promote our businesses – and we do it on PCs, tablets, smartphones and a growing range of other devices.
The idea behind Internet security is to keep your personal information to yourself, while the idea behind social media is to share. This isn’t a problem, provided you’re careful about what you share. If you’re too generous with personal details, you can become a victim of identity theft, financial fraud or burglary. Providing too much personal information can even expose you to physical danger.
Protecting your PIN numbers, passwords, credit card details and banking information is priority number one. And even though it’s common to share seemingly harmless information like your birthplace or birth date on social media, this information can be used in identity theft.
Most social media sites give you a wide range of privacy settings, so take advantage of these to protect yourself. Make sensible decisions about the individuals and groups that are allowed to view your posts.
On Linkedin, you can limit access to your contacts in relation to others in your network – a common practice for businesses that don’t want competitors to steal their customer base.
Googling your own name is an easy way to check how much information is available about you online. Do this once a month or so – this also lets you know if someone is using your name for dubious purposes. It’s not unheard of for people to impersonate others when replying to blog posts or conducting other online interactions, so always keep track of what’s happening online in your name.
Protecting your PIN numbers, passwords, credit card details and banking information is priority number one.
It’s human nature to want to tell people about your upcoming overseas holiday, or even post photos from your Italian villa or the top of Machu Picchu. Resist the temptation, because burglars love it when you announce that your house is empty. Similarly, you should never let it be known that you live alone – this can give home invaders and predators all the encouragement they need. A thief that knows you’re a sole occupant need merely wait for you to go head off to work before ransacking your empty abode.
And it’s not just extended holidays that put you at risk: a tweet like “Taking the whole family camping Saturday night – can’t wait!” is just as useful to burglars.
Social media is best used sparingly and with discretion.
Beware: that drunken tweet or risqué photo you were so proud of 8 years ago may still be in cyberspace when a prospective employer is looking at your online history – and deciding if you’re the right person to hire.
Minimising your online profile will also help reduce the sheer volume of spam that comes your way.
Keep your kids safe online
Children are naturally trusting, and this trait can make them vulnerable online. Keeping your kids cyber-safe requires education, open communication and regular monitoring. Teach them about what you do to ensure your own safety on the Internet. Make them aware of the dangers of chatting online to strangers, the need to verify the origins of emails, and what to do if they think they’ve accidentally downloaded a virus.
Keeping children safe online doesn’t always have to be about control and restrictions.
There are a number of software programs available that filter, block or otherwise control which sites your children can access. If you prefer to prevent all unsupervised browsing, you can install programs that automatically ‘forget’ access passwords until Mum or Dad are around to allow online access. Apps can be fun for kids, but make sure you know which ones they’re using and that they’re aware of the spyware dangers of downloading apps from dubious sources.
Cyberbullying is an increasing problem for children of all ages, and can be hurtful to a child’s self-esteem. Teach your children never to post anything they wouldn’t post if their parents were standing right behind them, and educate them about the principles of online kindness, etiquette and courtesy so they can carry good habits into adulthood.
If your child becomes a cyberbullying victim, there are a number of online resources available to help both you and your child learn about how to deal with this issue.
Like adults, children should avoid clicking on unknown email attachments and sharing their passwords. Long, run-together sentences are the easiest passwords for children to remember, and are more secure than shorter ones (like birthdays or pet nicknames).
One should always log out after they’re finished with a computer (at home, at school or anywhere else) so no one can access their personal information or browsing history.
Predatory individuals will often pretend to be someone of a different age or gender in order to infiltrate a child’s world. Children must be taught to connect only with people they know, and to advise their parents immediately if they’re at all uncomfortable with the way an online conversation is going. Instruct them about what is and isn’t acceptable when sharing photos online.
Explain to your kids that social media is not a popularity contest: it’s the quality of their online friends that matters, not the quantity. And though your children (especially older ones) may not like it, you have both the right and a parental obligation to monitor their posts and online activity for their own safety. If necessary, this parental access can be a prerequisite for allowing them to go online. As they get older, you can loosen the reins as appropriate.
Keeping children safe online doesn’t always have to be about control and restrictions. Reward them with extra online hours for doing positive things, too – like running their own security scans or changing passwords regularly.
Without a reliable antivirus program on your PC and devices, you’re at the mercy of a huge range of programs that can adversely affect your computer. It’s not always easy to tell if your computer has been infected with a virus, spyware, malware or other cyberspace vermin, but here are a few telltale clues: your PC runs slower than normal, freezes without warning, has strange pop-up windows appear out of nowhere or just doesn’t behave normally all of a sudden.
Invest in a top-notch antivirus system to reduce future problems. This is particularly important for computers used in the running of your business.
With thousands of new online viruses appearing daily, it’s impossible to protect yourself against everything, but a decent antivirus program (designed to handle a wide range of threats) is a good start. Quality antivirus software can be regularly updated so you can protect yourself against new ‘strains’.
Beware of free antivirus systems that you’re invited to download over the Internet – these are often the quickest way to find yourself infected with a new virus! Go to a software store and buy packaged software instead. An internet security suite that offers a firewall as well as antivirus and ant-spyware protection is ideal.
Regularly delete your temporary Internet files. Aside from freeing up space on your hard drive, this also speeds up virus scanning and may even remove basic spyware.
If you believe your system has been infected, you’ll find numerous tips online on the most effective ways to remove them. Once you’ve rid yourself of the offending virus, make sure you change all your passwords and usernames. Invest in a top-notch antivirus system to reduce future problems. This is particularly important for computers used in the running of your business.
Be aware that being connected to the Internet is not needed to become infected with a virus – some viruses can be transferred through documents or other files hidden on a CD you’ve borrowed from a friend.
Common Internet scams
The Internet is a fertile breeding ground for deception and criminal scams. Here are some of the more prevalent culprits:
- The ‘you’ve won the lottery’ scam
An email arrives, informing you of your million-dollar lottery win. Of course, they’ll need your full financial details so they can transfer these non-existent winnings into your account. Give them nothing and delete the email at once – without clicking on any links.
- The ‘your account will soon be deactivated’ scam
In this ploy, you get an email (allegedly from your bank or PayPal) saying there’s a problem with your account, and you should click on a link to go to their site and correct the situation. Threats of account deactivation may persuade you into clicking on the link. Unfortunately, this link doesn’t take you the genuine financial site – it takes you to a fake lookalike site that’s aimed at getting sensitive information from you. Whenever you get one of these ‘act immediately or your account will be frozen’ emails, delete it at once. These emails rely on impulsive panic, but are easily thwarted by not clicking on links in emails from financial entities. When in doubt, call them on the phone.
- Lonely hearts scams
These scams often prey on older people, and can affect both sexes equally. A person worms their way into your online life and strikes up a friendship. The relationship deepens, and may turn to cyberspace romance. There may even be promises of marriage. Before long, they’ll ask for a small ‘loan’ under some pretext: their child is sick, they need airfare money to come visit you, etc. If you pay, they’ll thank you profusely, wait a suitable length of time, and ask for more money for something else – and on it goes. The person you’ve fallen for might not even exist: their photo could be a phony, and their life history a fairy tale.
- Nigerian inheritance scam
This one has become famous: you get an email from Prince Makatele Mubongo of Nigeria (or similar), telling of a massive inheritance that he desperately needs to get out of the country. Naturally, he has selected you to transfer this money to – provided you supply your banking details and pay an ‘overseas bank transfer fee’ of a few hundred dollars to get things rolling. If you send the money, you’ll find there’s been a glitch in the process, and even more money is required to smooth out the bureaucratic details. You’ll never see a cent of this make-believe inheritance, but the make-believe Prince will do okay.
- The ‘take our survey’ scam
This is one of the most common ways for computer hackers to install malware or spyware on your computer. When you take the requested survey, these criminals install their programs and can then check on your every online move, scanning for passwords, credit card information and anything else usable for financial gain. Avoiding online surveys is a wise move. The survey may appear to be from a legitimate source (and may even promise a prize for participating), but a check of the sender’s email address will usually reveal a suspicious URL. Delete it immediately.
- The ‘work from home and make thousands a week’ scam
The way these work is that you get an email (or respond to a pop-up on a site you’ve visited) telling you about the sure-fire way you can ‘earn $5,000 a week while you sleep!’ Upon responding, you’ll discover that to get to the ‘top earning level’ you’ll need to fork out for some training materials. If you don’t, they’ll typically bombard you with emails to ask why you haven’t taken this ‘simple step toward financial freedom’. A variation on this theme is the fake (but extremely lucrative) job offer that asks for an upfront fee to ‘process your application’.
These scams constitute just a sampling of the ways unscrupulous folks might try to extract money from you online. There are many others, but you can avoid most of them with simple vigilance.
Beware of anything that seems too good to be true. Delete unsolicited emails, adjust your privacy settings and don’t click on links you’re not sure about – especially from His Majesty Prince Baron von Ripyuoffkwik from Nigeria.