Computers are a wonderful thing. I should think so; I make my living using one! They offer unparalleled convenience in our lives. At just the click of a mouse or a single stroke of a key, you can pay bills, order gifts and have them shipped around the world, transfer money—even earn a college degree!
However, this ease of information exchange also comes with a price: new ways to be victimized by scams, fraud, and outright theft of personal information.
Don’t despair! There are simple, common sense steps you can take to reduce your risk of losing your information, your money, and your identity to con artists, and you don’t have to give up the convenience of the Web!
Tip 1: Don’t give ANY personal information to anyone unless you initiated contact.
Most commonly, people fall into the trap of giving away bank account numbers, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, usernames, and passwords after receiving an email from a bank or credit card company asking for a customer response. Sometimes, these emails will ask for this personal information to be returned in an email, but more often, they will provide a link to a website.
This technique, often called “phishing,” creates emails that often warn recipients that their account or personal information has been compromised or that they are in danger of having certain privileges, such as use of a credit card, revoked. While it used to be easy to tell these bogus emails from genuine ones, many phishing emails now look quite official, using logos, legal language, even real customer service telephone numbers!
Most banks, credit card companies, and other businesses that handle sensitive information will not ask you to give personal information via email. In fact, it’s always good practice never to give any personal information unless you initiated the contact. If you receive such an email, visit or call the company (with their customer service number that you have on file, not in the email) that’s asking for the information to determine if the communication is legitimate. It’s an extra step worth taking to protect yourself!
Tip 2: Always check website addresses.
Before you divulge any sensitive information on a website, check the website address, or URL, first. Make sure that it begins with “
https://”, not “
http://.” That extra “s” means “secure,” and that means that there is a security certificate for the website that encrypts all information that is sent over the internet. Never give any personal information to an “
You should also make sure that you have the correct URL given to you by your bank, credit card company, or other institution. Some scam artists set up fake websites using URLs close to the real ones, for example, “
anytownbanks.com” when the real website is “
Tip 3: Always check security certificates.
Another good piece of advice is to check the security certificate before giving personal information. You can do that by clicking the padlock icon that appears in your browser, usually in the address bar but sometimes along the bottom of the screen. A new window should pop up, giving you information about the security certificate. All you need to look for is that the certificate hasn’t expired and that it matches the domain name of the website. For example, a certificate for “
anytownbank.com” should be registered for “
anytownbank.com.” Most browsers will warn you with a popup window if these parts of the security certificate aren’t correct, but you can always check anyway.
You should also be aware of another scam called “pharming.” This is when a hacker builds a fake website that mimics a real one and hijacks the information that tells your computer’s browser where to find the website. So your browser is trying to go to “
anytownbank.com” but is given the wrong information on where to find the real website. While this sounds frightening because you may not be able to tell the difference between the real site and the fake one, the fake website will not have the correct security certificate…or even one at all.
If you doubt the legitimacy of a website, call the customer service number you have on file for the company to verify that you are using the real website.
Tip 4: Never download software from sources you don’t know or without reading the End User License Agreement.
Spyware and adware, unwanted software programs that track your computer activities and report them to a third party, can engage in key logging, which simply is logging your keystrokes. This can open you up to revealing usernames, passwords, account numbers, and other sensitive information to unknown sources.
Often, this software comes in the form of email attachments or as downloadable software. Before you open any email attachment, make sure it’s from a trusted source. You can even ask the sender if he or she sent it to you. (Sometimes, viruses disguise themselves as emails from people you know when in fact the people you know never sent them to you.)
Before downloading software, particularly free software, read the End User License Agreement (EULA). The EULA will reveal if extra software comes with the package and if you are agreeing to submit information involuntarily. Also, never download software from an unsolicited source and from popups that warn you that your computer is at risk. These are almost always clever disguises.
Keep your computer up to date with antivirus software and spyware detection programs to keep your information safe.
Use common sense.
With all this said, don’t be afraid to take full advantage of the technology available to you. Just remember that a little common sense and careful Web surfing can keep your personal information and identity safe. And always contact your bank or other institutions if you fear that personal information has been compromised. It’s just like that adage: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” So get out there—do your banking, buy your gifts, and earn that degree!