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Feature Stories

10 tips to help you stay safe online

Cindy Richards, Editor

Online Safety

Increasingly, we live in a virtual, online world. And just like the real world, the online world can be a dangerous place – unless you know how to protect yourself. These tips from the U.S. government's and the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team websites can help:

  1. Block the bad guys. Install security software on your computer and set it to update automatically. This way, your computer security can keep up with hackers – criminals who want to sneak into your computer and spy on your online activities or even steal your personal data.

  2. Protect your personal information. You already know not to give out your Social Security number to everyone who asks for it, but it's equally important not to send sensitive information such as your bank account numbers over email or text.

  3. Reveal less. Be careful about photos and personal information you post on social media sites such as Facebook. Your family might want to know that you're having fun while you're away on vacation, but the criminals can find out, too. So don't post revealing information such as your home address or birthdate.

  4. Look for the https. Web addresses start with the letters "http" followed by a colon and two forward slashes: http://. But secure websites, like the one for your bank or a shopping site asking for your credit card number, should start with https:// That added "s" stands for "secure" and indicates the site is encrypted (preventing illicit entry) so it's safe to send your personal information. Look for it on every page of the site you're browsing.

  5. Beware of public or free wifi access. Wireless Internet access that is not password protected can easily be hacked. Never send sensitive personal information by public or free wifi.

  6. Write strong passwords, change them regularly, and use a different password for each site. Passwords like "password123" or your birthday might be easy to remember, but they're also easy to hack. Aim for passwords of 10 or more characters, use a combination of upper and lower case letters, and include numbers and special characters. For example: YoUr1stpet'sName20!3.

  7. Don't get caught by a phisher. "Phishing" (pronounced "fishing") is the name for hackers who try to lure you to give them your personal information, often by telling you (falsely) that your account is in danger of being closed if you don't send the requested information right away. Legitimate companies don't do business this way. Call your bank or credit card company directly – by checking the phone number on your statement or the back of your card--rather than responding to the email. If it's a phishing scam, the company can help you report the offender to authorities.

  8. Log off when you're done. This is particularly important if you are using a shared, public computer like those at the public library, but it also helps if you are using your own computer at home. Most legitimate financial sites will log you off after a few minutes of inactivity to protect your personal information.

  9. Listen to your browser. Most browsers will warn you if you are logging into a suspicious site. Heed those warnings.

  10. Beware of attachments. If you weren't expecting an attachment, don't download it unless you can confirm it came from the sender. Email hackers spread their "malware" and computer "viruses" by taking over victims' email accounts and then sending out attachments to the victims' email address book.