How to Protect Yourself Online

You wouldn’t walk through a crowd with your social security card, your credit cards and your checkbook hanging out of your bag in plain sight. You wouldn’t pass your laptop around to everyone on the subway and show them your passwords. But if you’re not careful online, this is essentially what you’re doing. Learn how to protect yourself so you can avoid identity theft, compromising your personal accounts or credit score, and irreparable damage to your computer. With a few basic precautions, your identity and computer will be perfectly safe from online predators.

Use Your Firewall

Every computer with a Windows operating system comes with a preconfigured firewall. This is like a locked gate around your home—it keeps the bad guys out and only lets in what you permit. Don’t reconfigure your firewall or disable it unless you are absolutely certain you know what you’re doing. If you’re having trouble downloading, installing or running a particular type of software program, contact the program’s manufacturer or Microsoft Support for guidance before you adjust your firewall.

Use Anti-Virus Software

Anti-virus software is like your computer’s guard dog. It inspects all incoming programs and files and alerts you of anything suspicious. If you use a subscription, always be sure that it is current. Also make sure that it updates itself automatically; otherwise it won’t be able to recognize what the most current security threats are.

Beware of Public Networks

Public Wi-Fi networks can be very convenient, but they’re not always secure. If you’re submitting sensitive information like passwords or account numbers, be certain you are connecting to the Internet through a secure, private network. Otherwise, anyone connected to the same network may have the capability to spy on what you’re doing.

Use Complex Passwords

Many secure websites prompt you to create a secure password that is difficult to decode. It’s important to always use passwords at least six characters long that consist of both upper and lower case letters, as well as numbers or symbols.

Check Website Security Credentials

Any time you submit a password or sensitive information, you can easily check the website’s security credentials. Secure website URLs start with “https://” instead of “http://”. Your browser should also automatically verify a website’s security; otherwise it will warn you that the website you’re using is unsecure. If you are on a secure website, most browsers display the color green somewhere in the address bar, such as the text of the URL or the background. They also display a secure lock symbol. Click on the lock symbol if you want to see more information about any website’s security.

If You Don’t Know, Don’t Click

If you receive a link that seems suspicious in any way, never click on it, even if a friend sends it to you. It may be a phishing scam. If your best friend emails you a link about a deal that’s too good to be true, ask her about it personally. If she doesn’t know what you’re talking about, her email account has been hacked by a scam—and the scammer is trying to reach you. Another common scam is a message supposedly from a financial institution claiming that you need to resubmit sensitive information through a given link. If you click on the link, you may be taken to a fake (but convincing) website trying to steal your information.  Always check with your institution—through a valid website or with a representative over the phone—before you submit any sensitive information.

If You’re a Victim

If you suspect that you’ve been a victim of an Internet predator, you have a few options. If your email or other social networking account has been hacked, change your password immediately if you still have access. If you don’t have access, contact the account provider to regain control. If you suspect that you’ve downloaded some harmful software, run a full system scan with your anti-virus software and remove it. If you think someone else has access to your financial account, contact your financial institution immediately to freeze the account. Finally, if you believe your identity has been stolen, contact a consumer reporting company like TransUnion, Equifax or Experian to initiate a fraud alert.