Tips to Keep Your Personal Information Safe from Identity Thieves When On-Line

Sometimes I long for the days when the only scams I needed to worry about were the people who would phone and ask me to donate to a bogus charity or try to get me to give them my credit card information, or driver’s license.

Those scams still exist, but now personal safety is an issue when purchasing on-line or just using E-Mail.

This article covers tips for shopping and purchasing on-line safely. You may have already heard these five points, but even those of us who have been working with Internet technology since the early 1990s need to remind ourselves not to become complacent and review safety tips.

1. Browsers display a lock or key icon (somewhere in the window) on secured pages. The lock should be in the locked position when you are purchasing items on the Internet.

    1a. In latest version of Internet Explorer (IE) the lock located to the right of the address bar. In earlier versions of IE, and other browsers, it is located in the lower right or left of your browser window, depending on which browser and browser version you are using.

    1b. Some Google browsers show the lock in the Google logo, some browser versions have the lock to the right or left of its menu bar (upper area of the browser).

    1c. The latest version of Firefox displays a key to the left of the address bar on all secured sites or pages. You should be able to left click on the lock or key and get the security information for the site you are visiting.

    1d. If the lock or key aren’t on the browser by the time you get the payment page (window), don’t enter your credit card information. Buy the item(s) elsewhere.

    1e. Most browsers will also change the color of the address bar background when you enter a secure page. For some sites it is green and others it is blue. The difference is that the green color means the company that issued the secure certificate has taken extra steps to confirm the identity of the web site owner. These steps come at a significant premium. If you are reasonably sure you are dealing with a reputable company, a green address bar doesn’t make your transaction any more secure.
2. Update your virus protection software (e.g., Norton, MacAfee, etc.) often. Be sure to allow that software to check (scan) your E-Mail as it arrives. While your Internet/E-Mail provider is the first line of defense, YOU must take the proper steps to protect your own computer and identity.

    2a. All computers need a firewall. Most of the new computers have this built-in and routers are also a line of defense. However, if you feel your computer is still at risk, a free firewall (software) is available from ZoneAlarm.

    2b. Always think twice before opening an email attachment, even from someone you know. Many viruses use an infected computer’s contacts list as potential new victims.

    2c. Check the file name of an attachment. Never open an attachment with a .exe, .bat, or other executable file extension.
3. Use strong passwords. The best passwords are made up of a combination of a mixed case alphanumeric sequence plus symbols. For example 5T0P*1t! is a much better password than STOPIt. Cyber criminals have software that can break passwords. They usually start with names and important dates, so don’t use personal data such as your kids’ names and birthdates. They also use “dictionary attacks” (variations of common words) and lists of commonly used passwords. According to PC Magazine, the most commonly used passwords are “password”, “123456”, “qwerty”, “abc123”, and “letmein”. If any of these look familiar, change them fast!

4. Disable automatic logins. Write down your logins and passwords and keep them off your computer. All browsers ask if you want to “remember login” or “always keep me connected.” Don’t! If a hacker does get access to your computer, it makes it easier for him to get access to all your accounts.

5. If you are throwing your computer away, wipe it clean. Completely delete ANY personal information. Use a utility program that wipes the entire hard drive clean. This program will overwrite your hard drive; anyone looking for information would need a computer forensics specialist, with specialized software to get anything from that disk.

    5a. While burning is the only way to totally destroy a hard disk, DON’T attempt to do so yourself. Parts of a computer will give off toxic fumes when burned.
Finally, let’s touch on other things you need to do to protect yourself and your family from malicious computer acts. While there will have future articles about this, the following is worth mentioning now.

6. Don’t let your kids or grandkids use your computer without installing parental controls using a password the kids can’t crack. While you want to keep them away from adult sites, they aren’t the only ones that are dangerous to children. We have found that there are sites for the very young and music download sites that download malicious and spy software to computers. One customer was constantly getting blacklisted because the PC they used for business was also used by the children, and it was constantly getting infected when the kids downloaded games and music from sites geared to them.

    6a. Don’t forget to monitor their on-line conversations with other children. Make sure they know not to tell anyone when you plan to take vacations, or give any personal information (e.g., addresses). Children may not be as aware of how clever predators can be. A seemingly innocent question like “what’s your school mascot?” can help a predator narrow down a child’s location.

    6b. Site with malicious or illegal content are taken down as they are found by the police and FBI. However, if the people behind those sites are not apprehended, they are able to start a new site elsewhere. But, remember, no matter where such people are physically, they are present globally, including your home – IF you let them in.

First published in Raintree Association Board-O-Gram, September 2011
Copyright Peter Dumpert & Elizabeth Milio, Innovative Computer Services, LLC
All Rights Reserved

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