Advice Technology

How to keep yourself safe on the internet

The internet has never been more accessible to people than it is today. In the last 20 years the internet has become a staple in every household, something everything uses, often on a daily basis through computers, tablets and phones. You probably use the internet for everything from shopping for new items, entertainment through watching shows and reading, communication and even education for your children. These days kids as young as four or five can use a phone, tablet or computer with access to the internet. It’s important we keep ourselves safe and also keep our children safe, and teach them how to look after themselves on the internet. Just as we learn how to safely cross a road, so people need to learn how to use the internet.

Some of the things you might encounter on the internet which pose a threat to you or your family include

  • Scammers
  • Data breaches
  • Identity theft
  • Malware and viruses
  • Cyberbullying, stalking and harrassment
  • Inappropriate content

I’m going to cover some tips that will help you protect yourselves and your family from these threats, covering how to recognize a scam, a vpn explanation, how to protect yourself against malware, how to protect your data and respond if it’s stolen and how to protect yourself from inappropriate content.

Be vigilant for Scammers

Scammers are rife on the internet. These are often people not based in your own country who do not fear being caught or punished, but do not make the mistake of assuming you can trust local people either. A scam can come from far away, or it can be the person you are buying second hand goods from in your own town. The aim of scammers is to receive either money or goods from you – so when sending money, or sending items, be as vigilant and wary as possible. If there is a transaction occurring it is best to trust no one and verify their details as much as possible.

If buying goods from a website you need to verify that this is a legitimate website and business you are giving your debit or credit card details to. Fake websites will directly steal your data and then use it elsewhere. When buying goods online you want to verify that:

  • The website is secure, using https:// at the beginning which indicates a security certificate.
  • The domain is correct. If you clicked a link on a website, email or text message, you may not have noticed the full URL. Fake websites often clone others by making a website that looks very similar to what you were expecting. Examine the source of the link to look at the full URL before clicking anything.
  • The business is legitimate. Look for Google Reviews, TrustPilot Reviews and an active social media presence.
  • If there is a physical store look for the address being public. You should be able to find it on Google Maps, and there should be reviews present for it from legitimate people.
  • Use Google’s Safe browsing site status – this is a transparancey check launched by Google to analyse the safety of websites.

When buying things direct from people you should look out for scams such as cloned bank apps. If they load a bank app on their phone showing the money transferred, it can be a fake one. Do not hand over the goods until you are 100% sure the money is in your account. This is especially common in the UK with selling cars, but can be selling anything.

Finally there are social scammers out there who will prey on vulnerable people. This is when it becomes important to protect everyone around you, particularly those who are vulnerable such as people with mental illness, people suffering from grief or loss, elderly people and children. These people may be compromised in a way that makes it easier for the scammer to manipulate them. This is common for example with romance scams, and also scams with lost pets or even lost people. These scams can be harder to detect as these people may build up a long relationship, posing as a friend or potential romantic partner. The scam can go on for years, building up trust, and be hard for these vulnerable people to recognize that they are being lied to. All we can do is be vigilant when meeting people online; never send gift cards or money unless you have verified you are talking to a real person, ideally by meeting them in person and building a real-world relationship.

Protect your data

Secure your data using a VPN

An insecure connection can lead to your data being leaked. I imagine you have connected to public wi-fi before – perhaps at the pub or a restaurant, a train station, maybe even somewhere you think is safe like a school or library. But every time you use a public wi-fi you have no control over the security settings and you are trusting someone else. This can leave you vulnerable to cyber attacks or breaches of sensitive data – such as passwords, credit card numbers, internet banking details or even things like your SSN or NI number. A VPN is a Virtual Private Network. These encrypt your internet traffic and thus disguise your identity. This happens in real time whilst you are using the VPN, so third parties trying to steal data cannot track you. This adds a layer of personal protection to all your online activities. Whilst being out and about is the most risk to your personal data, even using a VPN at home will add an extra layer of protection.

Use strong passwords

This is the one that a lot of people fall short on. We want to remember our passwords and pin numbers, so we pick something easy or meaningful to us. But this makes us vulnerable to both online and in-person hacking. If you are using your date of birth as your pin number, it’s the first thing someone is going to try if they have access to your internet banking details. Or maybe you use something memorable to you such as a family name, pet’s name, favourite place or even something related to a hobby or author. All of these things can be guessed by someone who has accessed your data (and may have stolen this information from public posts or social media) or even who knows you. Online if you use a short password then you’ve made yourself vulnerable to automated cyberattacks. The more complex a password and the more unique it is, the harder it is for an automated system to access it or for someone to guess it. A lot of websites these days will make you use combinations of capital letters, numbers and symbols. But using the same password everywhere will leave yourself open to attack in the case of a data breach. This is also why it’s good to regularly change passwords. Have a think about your passwords now and how secure they are – maybe you need to head out and change a few of them whilst you’re thinking about it.

How to recognize and respond to Identity or Data theft

It can be hard to know if someone has stolen your data and used it. Always open your physical mail (even if it looks like spam) and check what you are receiving, as someone may be using your physical address. Signing up to a credit report online can be useful (there are several free options) as this can send you notifications when your credit report changes. This can tell you if someone is building up debt in your name, such as opening a new credit card or store account with your stolen data. Every legitimate bank these days should come with an online banking app. You can use this to monitor your daily ins and outs, so you know when an unexpected payment is taken. Look out for emails or text messages saying someone has tried to access your account – setting up two factor account authentication such as needing a code from a text message can protect you. If you know someone is trying to gain access to your account, change your password and check all your security settings. Don’t just ignore it!

If you are looking after family members, you may need to set these things up. Vulnerable people such as the elderly may not have access to the same digital protection tools as we do, which makes them targets for identity theft.

If you suspect you’ve fallen victim to identity theft or fraud, it’s crucial to immediately inform the involved companies and your bank, and assess whether you need to report the incident to the police or any other relevant agency. For detailed guidance on how to protect yourself after such an event, especially if your Social Security Number has been compromised, you can learn protective measures after SSN compromise.

How to protect yourself from other people on the internet

The worst part of this is that you can never fully protect yourself from other people on the internet. If you are talking to people, whether it’s on Facebook Messenger, an app like Snapchat, dating on Tinder, or just chatting on forums such as Reddit, you’re interacting with other people. You cannot control what other people say or send you. As a woman who was a teenager when the internet entered our homes and is very active on the internet, I have experienced a large amount of unwanted sexual content, from comments to photos and videos. I have experienced stalking and having a blog like this with a social media presence has attracted trolls, harassment and even threats of violence. When you put a part of yourself online, you leave yourself open. As an adult I feel confident recognizing and ignoring inappropriate content and unwanted communication, but I worry about how vulnerable my child will be as he grows up in this online world.

Use parental controls

As a parent you are responsible for your child’s safety and you need to use every tool at your disposal to ensure they are safe. It’s all too easy to hand a child a phone and not realize what websites they are browsing, what videos they are watching and what content they might be seeing. Children are having access to unsafe content at younger and younger ages, but even things like adverts on a phone game may be inappropriate for their age group or be a scam or fake content that they click. Every device should have parental controls on it, but supervision is critically important for online safety too. You need to know and understand the content yourself so you can make an informed decision on whether it’s appropriate and safe.

Protect yourself from inappropriate content

The things you can do to protect yourself, and teach your children to do once they are teenagers and young adults are:

  • Be aware that what you post online can be seen by other people
  • Don’t use communication apps or websites that you do not trust. Ensure they have a moderation team.
  • Lock down social media settings so that only people you want to see your posts and contact you can do so
  • Always check privacy settings of apps you use
  • Never send images or video of yourself that you would not want to go public
  • Be vigilant against anonymous communication and be aware of catfishing
  • Be aware of what is appropriate / inappropriate online
  • If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, collect evidence by screenshotting, report if necessary and cease contact

Odds are, at some point you will be made to feel uncomfortable if you are communicating with other people on the internet. By gathering the evidence and reporting it to the appropriate place and then blocking and ceasing communication, you have done what you can to protect yourself and other people. For example, if you receive upsetting content on Facebook, report it to Facebook and block. Each communication platform should have their own team that moderates the content and can take appropriate action. If you believe the content is illegal or unsafe, then make a report to your local police.

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