How to surf smart & stay safe online

The internet is a revolutionary tool that has improved many aspects of daily life for people around the world. These days, as long as you have a working internet connection, you can take care of many of your daily tasks and responsibilities from the comfort of your own home. Email, video chatting services, and messenger applications help us stay in touch with family and friends near and far; we book our doctor, dental, and other appointments online; we keep track of our bank accounts and pay our bills from our smartphones; and we can even order groceries, summon a car, or find our next canine companion online.

As much as the internet has brought convenience to certain areas of our lives, it has also brought increased risk to others. As we spend more of our time online, and as we use this tool to handle more and more necessary tasks, it is important to be smart about the risks we take when connecting to the internet.

One password does not fit all.

Whether or not we realize it, most of us are breaking rule #1 of internet safety. Even if you’ve been an internet user for a long time, and you have been using passwords for decades, it’s highly likely that you’re using passwords that aren’t up to snuff. These days it isn’t enough to use one password across your various accounts and social network platforms, even if it’s strong on its own. Unfortunately, data breaches are incredibly common, and if your information is compromised, you can bet the people behind it will attempt to access more of your accounts using the password they’ve just uncovered. And if you’re like the 80% of Americans who use the same password for multiple online accounts, they are likely to succeed. Imagine how devastating it would be if someone was able to gain access your banking account, your credit card statements, and your social media accounts in one fell swoop. Fortunately, there are measures you can take to protect yourself from falling victim to this tragedy:

  • Create a new, unique password for each new account you open.
  • Ensure that each of these passwords is complex; aim for 12 or more characters.
  • Don’t use personal details, like the name of your pet or the street you live on, in your passwords. While using these details will make it easier to remember your passwords, it will also make it easier for potential hackers to guess them with a little bit of sleuthing.
  • Consider using a service like Passpack or 1Password to generate and store highly complex passwords.
  • Whenever possible, enable multi-factor authentication, which will require you to validate your login from a second source or via a unique code.
  • Don’t share your passwords with anyone.
  • If you do decide to write your passwords down for your own reference, make sure to keep your records in a safe place that is out of plain sight from your computer, preferably in an entirely different room under lock and key.

Protect your system from viruses.

Installing antivirus and firewall software will make your computer much less vulnerable to outside attacks. Cyber criminals take advantage of bugs and other flaws in older systems, so make sure to stay on top of system and other important software updates, especially those for your operating system, which, for most people, is either Windows or MacOS. Most programs will notify you when there is an update available for download, and some will even download and install them automatically. If you’re not sure that your protective software is up-to-date, call the company that you purchased it from to ask for confirmation or assistance.

Be wary of emails or messages from strangers

If you receive an unsolicited message in your email inbox (or on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or any other social site) from someone that you don’t know, proceed with caution. Do not click on any links they may send, and think long and hard about responding even to messages that may seem innocent on the surface. Often, online predators will groom their victims over a period of time, building trust and establishing a fraudulent friendship or romantic connection while slowly coaxing out sensitive information or even conning their victims out of significant amounts of money. If someone you’ve never met in person is asking you for personal information or money, it is safe to assume that they have malicious intentions. There are a lot of scammers out there, and they’ve been known to get very creative with their tactics. If you receive messages that are threatening in nature, or the person claims that one of your loved ones is in danger, or that you owe money to the IRS or any other institution, stop replying to their messages, report their account, and contact the proper authorities if necessary.

Remember that your loved ones can be hacked, too

Beware of imposters masquerading as your friends or family members online. If you receive a friend request from a family member you are already connected with, or if you receive a message that sounds out of character, don’t respond until you have confirmed with your loved one in phone or in person that they are in fact the person behind the account, especially if they are asking for money or private information. Sometimes, scammers will reach out directly to the contacts listed in the account of the person they have hacked, pretending that a tragedy has befallen your loved one while abroad, and that they need you to wire money or provide banking details in order to book a flight home, pay a ransom, or make bail.

Take advantage of privacy controls

When you create an account on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, the content you share on your public profile will, by default, be accessible to others on the internet. Fortunately, most social platforms do allow you to make your profile private or to control which updates are visible to certain audiences. While it can be fun to meet new people online, publicly broadcasting the details of your day-to-day life can be risky. If you need help configuring your own privacy settings, ask a professional or tech-savvy loved one for assistance.

Pay close attention to the content you share online

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, we all learned just how prevalent “fake news” and malicious content can be, and it becomes even more dangerous when it is posted by our friends and family members. Because we trust them and value their opinions, we are more likely to click on the content they share without a second thought. When you are browsing the stories in your timeline or checking your email, take an extra moment or two to analyze the content in more detail before clicking or sharing it. If it looks suspicious, or if the URL doesn’t appear to be connected to a trustworthy site or source, keep scrolling. If you’re really curious about the topic, you can research it on Google to find information from a more trustworthy source.

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Read our quick-start guide for help, including which questions you should be asking as you approach retirement.

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