The Internet can be a scary place. Just ask your Grandma. Plenty of elderly matriarchs would rather trust their cataracts behind the wheel than brave a world full of trolls, cyber-bullies, and malicious “phish." Well, at least mine would; she wouldn’t touch a computer with a ten-foot cane. And I can lie about the cane, because she’ll never read this.
But, if you’re reading this, you’ve already ventured out into cyberspace (grandma hopes you packed a fresh pair just in case). And she’s right; threats abound out here. But, there are a lot of easy ways to minimize your risk online. Here are seven of them!
1. Run security software
Basic security programs can go a long way toward protecting your computer from viruses, malware, and spyware. And, luckily for you penny-pinchers, better security doesn’t have to cost more. Consumer Reports tested 18 security suites and anti-malware programs, and found that free programs will work just fine for most people. Their top free pick is Avira Free Antivirus, followed by AVG Anti-Virus Free 2012. Both programs match up ratings-wise against CR’s top paid picks. For the best defense, Consumer Reports recommends building a cyber-protection army of free tools instead of just one. Bonus tip: Run a firewall!
2. Get creative with passwords
Is your main password “password?” Tsk tsk. Don’t hold the virtual door open for cyber-criminals! If your password appears on this list, it’s time for a makeover. Lengthen it, mix it up with symbols and nonsense, randomize it, do what you need to do. Just make sure it’s not easy to guess. You might want to use a different password for different sites, especially for online banking. Change your password as often as you can stomach it; Microsoft recommends doing so every three months. If there’s been a major security breach, check to see if it’s time for a new password ASAP. At shouldichangemypassword.com, you can see if your e-mail address has been compromised.
3. Be wary about WiFi
Public WiFi is convenient, but it’s not necessarily the safest. HLN’s Jennifer Westhoven says that free WiFi can be even riskier. If you’re going to use it, don’t look at your work e-mail or your bank statement. Plus, in public, identity thieves could be looking over your shoulder even more easily than in your computer. Boost your security further by logging into secure sites only. Those are the web addresses that start with “https” and have a little lock to the left of them.
4. Careful what you click on
Spam in your lunch? That’s a judgment call. Spam in your inbox? Don’t touch the stuff. Report any electronic junk mail if your e-mail service allows, but don’t click on any links or respond. Replying with “Unsubscribe” can just confirm to the sender that yours is a legitimate e-mail address. Consumer Reports recommends combating a deluge of spam with a free program like Spamfighter.
Dangerous e-mails can sometimes look legitimate, too. They can masquerade as messages from places you normally do business, like your bank. Don’t respond to any requests from personal information through links in e-mails; they could be “phishing” attacks. Type website addresses into a separate browser if you want to check your account. You can also pick up the phone and call the business in question.
5. Assess your risk
Knowledge is power. Learn how your data is being used while you surf. The website PrivacyScore.com analyzes your privacy risk on websites based on how they track you and handle your data. Just plug in a URL for a rating.
6. Cover your tracks
There’s been a lot of talk lately about standardizing the way web surfers can opt of out tracking. The White House and the FTC are pushing for an easier way; remember the privacy button? Some browsers already offer do-not-track features, but they don't necessarily give you an invisibility cloak, at least not yet. But, there are a couple other ways you can browse a little more privately.
Put your browser into “private mode.” It clears out your history and cookies automatically, but websites you visit will still know who you are. Add-ons like Do Not Track Plus and Ghostery give you more protection, plus some information on companies trying to track you.
You can also change your search engine. DuckDuckGo doesn’t store IP addresses or search histories, which means you won’t get targeted ads for cereal when you search for “the meaning of life.”
7. Use your brain
In the battle of human versus malicious machine, don’t underestimate the power of a little common sense. Use your instincts and you can keep yourself much safer online. Don’t click and download recklessly. Password-protect your smartphone. Don’t post your full name, birth date, mother’s maiden name, and Social Security number on social networking sites.