The internet is a wonderful tool with convenient services that can improve many aspects of our lives, but it doesnít come without risks. Cybercriminals have developed sophisticated ways of stealing sensitive information about your identity and finances, and online security specialists are in a constant battle to keep up. Letís walk through the specifics of the most common threats to your personal information online and explore some strategies for protecting yourself and those around you.
Malware - This term is short for malicious software, and it includes computer viruses, adware, spyware, worms, trojan horses, and ransomware. These usually infect your computer after you have downloaded software from an unsecured source. Hackers may impersonate financial institutions, businesses, healthcare facilities, or even friends and relatives in order to convince you to click a malicious link or open an attached file.
Adware is often bundled with other free software and downloaded without your knowledge. Adware tracks your browsing history and gathers other personal information from your computer in order to send you targeted advertisements. Adware isnít always malicious and may simply slow down your computer slightly. At its worst, however, adware could gather information about your passwords, credit card information, and other personal files stored on your hard drive.
Spyware tracks your internet activities without your consent. Businesses may intentionally install a form of spyware on company-owned devices in order to monitor their employeesí activity. However, hackers can use spyware to view your browsing history, saved passwords, and track information you type when logging into accounts or filling out web forms.
Worms are designed to replicate themselves and destroy all information and files on a device. This might not result in identity theft, but it can pose a serious problem for personal computers as well as devices that might be connected to servers you access for your job.
Trojan horses are programs designed to make you think they are safe to install and run on your computer. Afterward, they may gather personal information or make your files or networks unavailable to you.
Ransomware restricts your access to certain files, connected networks, or your entire hard drive. The hacker behind this software will demand that you pay a fee in order to unlock your information. This is often targeted at large organizations like government agencies, healthcare facilities, and other businesses. However, ransomware can also target individuals. Unfortunately, even after paying the fee, there is no guarantee that the hacker will actually unlock your data.
Spam - This can take the form of emails and social media messages that are obviously advertising products. Itís annoying, but businesses and individuals create fake profiles just to fill your inbox with junk mail. However, spam can also be designed as a compelling request for help from a friend or family member who is asking you to send money. These messages might also direct you to a link, file, or program that contains malware.
Unsecured Wireless Networks - Itís convenient to log on to a public Wi-Fi network, especially when itís free and you donít have to ask for a password. Unfortunately, accessing the internet through these networks stands to put your personal information at risk. Hackers may create unsecured networks that mimic the name and logo of a local business, only to use the connection to monitor your activity and access your files. Even if hackers didnít create the unsecured network, they can still intercept unencrypted data, which could include your login credentials.
Lost or Stolen Devices - Even though the data youíre trying to protect is digital, if your physical devices fall into the wrong hands, you could be at risk for identity theft and other cybercrimes.
Securing Your Personal Data
As you can see, hackers have an arsenal of tools and methods for stealing your most important information. Fortunately, protecting your personal data from hackers is much easier once you understand these major risk points. Here are a few strategies for preventing data breaches.
First, make sure your computer and other devices are regularly updated. You may be in the habit of putting off system updates because of long load times and the need to restart your device. However, these are often designed to improve potential security issues and help defend against new methods hackers might use to steal your information.
Obviously, the importance of regular updates also applies to updating your security software, which should include an antivirus as well as a firewall. Strong antivirus software will help combat against many types of malware, while the firewall will help prevent incoming connections that might be hostile. If the antivirus fails to prevent a virus from running on your device, your firewall will also prevent that virus from transmitting your data to the internet.
While security programs help, itís worth noting they arenít 100 percent effective, and youíll need to be vigilant in protecting yourself as well. This means creating strong passwords that are at least eight characters long and include special characters (&, %, #, @), numbers, and both lowercase and uppercase letters. You should set unique passwords for your wireless network along with all of your accounts and change the most critical account passwords at least every six weeks.
Online shopping is an especially important risk factor to consider because youíll likely type your credit card information directly into a web browser. As mentioned above, you shouldnít conduct a financial transaction on an unsecured wireless network because a hacker could be monitoring your activity. Make sure you arenít buying a product directly from a link from another site or an email as it could be a fake web page mimicking a legitimate business.
If youíre buying from a site for the first time, itís a good idea to search for customer reviews to make sure itís not a scam. Always make sure the web address begins with https rather than http as this ensures the business has taken extra steps to secure your information.
In general, itís wise to be cautious online. If something doesnít seem quite right, it probably isnít. Avoid clicking links, downloading attachments, or installing software sent to you in emails and social media messages. This is especially true for messages sent from strangers, but malicious messages could also come from hackers posing as your friends, family members, and businesses.
While family members may go through financial emergencies, be very careful if someone asks for money right away. Try to follow up with the individual in person or on the phone before sending money. If a bank, healthcare organization, or government agency says they urgently need sensitive information via email, it is probably a scam. If you feel like you should follow up with an organization, do some research into whether there are scams surrounding their services. Also, itís better to find contact information outside of the original message in order to get in touch.
Protecting Your Family
While you might be well versed in avoiding the pitfalls of internet scams and other cybercrimes, the people you care about may not be so fortunate. One potential risk factor relates to a personís age and their experience with the internet. Although plenty of elderly people are familiar with modern technology, seniors may be particularly vulnerable online. Often this is because older generations havenít spent their whole lives using smartphones, tablets, computers, and other devices that access the internet. If this is the case, they are much more likely to fall for hacking tactics that would be obvious to someone more familiar with potential red flags.
If you have an elderly relative or friend who has recently begun using the internet, donít assume they will know what to look out for. Antivirus programs arenít foolproof, and they canít prevent someone from willingly providing sensitive personal information to an unsecure source. Hackers often target seniors in order to access their savings. They may claim to offer major discounts on medical insurance and medications, or they might make urgent requests regarding their retirement fund, social security payments, or other sources of income.
Itís important to have conversations about these dangers and the types of information that could put their identity, finances, and other personal information at risk. It might be a good idea to offer yourself as a resource if something suspicious comes up. This may take patience, but allowing the senior to reach out to you about particular situations could save them from major problems.
At the opposite end of the age spectrum, children are growing up with access to internet-capable devices at a very early age. Parental controls can help limit what children are able to access online on devices they regularly use, but what happens when the child learns how to unlock your phone or finds your laptop open and unattended? Without even trying, your child might go on an online shopping spree, forward sensitive emails to the wrong people, or somehow expose your financial information.
The best way to prevent this is to protect these devices from your children. If possible, donít share the same devices that you use for important personal business with your kids. Or at the very least, set up a separate user account for your child so they wonít accidentally access sites with saved passwords and other information. Next, donít share your passwords with your children or write them down in an obvious location.
Keep in mind that many video games, even on mobile devices, include in-game purchases that can quickly add up. Your television service may also include purchase options for pay-per-view programs or channel packages. Additionally, digital assistants (like Alexa, Siri, Cortana) can connect directly to online shopping opportunities, and if your usual payment method is connected to your user account, a child would only have to ask for whatever it is they want to place an order. Itís best to make sure these require an additional pin number or two-step authentication before confirming a purchase.
There are far too many opportunities for your personal data to fall into the wrong hands, and cybercriminals are creating new schemes every day. However, if you are proactive about identifying and avoiding specific threats, you may never have to face the challenges associated with credit card fraud, identity theft, or other crimes.