How to Protect Yourself Online

By | January 11, 2017

www.avgguytech.com

 

It’s not all fun and games out there

The internet as we know it is probably one of the greatest inventions of human history.  Never before has the access to the collection of the world’s knowledge ever been more available.  It used to be people needed to travel to the great libraries to get the resources they needed.  Now you can just pull up that information from a small device in your pocket.  This great invention and resource is not without its dangers.  There are people out there looking to capitalize on the information you are providing to the internet, with or without your knowledge.  Everything you do online leaves a small footprint and crumb trail to where you have been, what you like and where you like to go.

There are a couple of steps you can take to make your adventures online a little safer and more secure.  Let’s take a look at them.

Covering your tracks

Whenever you visit a website, a small file is marked in your browser, this is called a “Cookie” these little cookies store information about who you are and what you looked at.  This enables the webserver to know if you have been there before and it can tailor the presentation to your personal tastes.  These cookies are also how Facebook knows to serve you ads based on stuff you looked at on Amazon.  Cookies can be harmless and make your browsing a little bit better, but they can also be used to follow you around the internet.

Cookies can be harmless and make your browsing a little bit better, but they can also be used to follow you around the internet.  Some ways cookies are used is to let the website know you have been there before, so you don’t have to keep logging in all time.  Or to save your shopping cart for you, if you navigate away from a page and come back.

Advertisers want to know what you look at and who you are.  There are targeted markets they are trying to reach and if you fall into one of those, they want to tailor their ads to best meet what they think your needs might be. This information is valueable to the website owners who are using your traffic numbers to sell advertising space.  I even use it here on this site.  I look at the analytic information to see where you all are from and what articles you are reading

I even use it here on this site.  I look at the analytic information to see where you all are from and what articles you are reading, so I know what articles people find interesting and from what websites you are linking here from.

So what’s the harm in the cookie?  Well, hackers can use the information stored in your cookies to compile a browsing history or with less secure cookies, take your passwords for some sites.  If you want to protect yourself from your information being available to sites then you can turn off the generation of cookies in your browser.  This will help protect you online, but will cause you to lose some of the functionality of websites that have you log in.

Hide your movements

Since cookies help keep a log of what sites you visit, the routers that handle moving your data around know who you are.  The internet is made up of a series of addresses. (I won’t get really technical on this) but every website, and every computer connected to the internet has an address.  So it is “easy” for someone to figure out where you are and possibly who you are by learning your address.

You can keep this address secret by using something called a Virtual Private Network or VPN.  A VPN connects your computer to another network via a “tunnel” through the internet.  This masks what your computers address is.  I have heard it explained like this.  If you go out on the internet it’s like someone watches you leave your driveway and follows you around all day.  With a VPN you drive to a covered parking garage and change cars.  Who ever follows you will only know you went into the garage.

This is a great way to prevent some websites from tracking you accurately or to keep people from knowing the address of your home network.

Use the latest browsers

The major browsers, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari are all built to be secure from snooping, but the people who write the code for the browsers are human and they make mistakes.  It is not uncommon for a security problem to pop up with a browser.  These are usually addressed very quickly, but it is important that you make sure your browser is up to date.  Just like your operating system, new security patches are being applied all the time, you need to make sure you have them.  Turning on automatic updates is something I highly recommend.

Don’t just click a link because it’s there

This goes for on a website or in your email.  I could fill pages of this blog with examples of people getting scammed because they didn’t inspect the email closely enough to know that it was a fake.  These emails usually take you to a website that looks a lot like a real website for a major company and then ask for a username and password.  If you enter your info you have just turned over the keys to your information.  This is whats commonly known as a phishing (fishing) scheme.  If you get an email from a company you think you know, asking for a username and password, chances are it’s probably a fake.  You can also hover your cursor over the link and can see that the address is not quite right.

Common sense prevails here.  If it doesn’t seem legit, it probably isn’t.  Bad spelling, weird english sentence structures and strange sounding titles are also indicators of a phishing scheme.

Sometimes you can mistype a web address and it takes you to a website that looks similar to the one you expected it to be.  There will usually be pop-ups that tell you something is wrong with your computer and you need to click a link to fix it.  Don’t do this either.  Just close the browser and start over.  If you can’t close the browser then press ctrl-alt-del or equivilent to bring up the task manager and kill the process from there.

Also pop-ups that tell you won something are always a scam!

Again, if you ever doubt something is real online, you are probably right.  No one ever got a virus or scammed by erring on the side of caution.

Passwords

Passwords are really the weak link anywhere.  Mostly since most of us are kind of lazy and want something easy to remember and type in.  So we usually default to names and numbers that are significant to us.  Most security experts recommend that this is a bad idea.

They do recommend you come up with a phrase that you can use to generate a password, something like I really like ice cream and pickles for dinner, could be made into the password IRlic&P4D.  This would be really hard for someone to guess, unless they knew your odd taste in dinner choices.

Password should also be changed every 3 to 6 months.  Hackers are always probing the internet looking for the databases that house usernames and passwords.  If you change your password often, it will ensure that any compromised passwords are no longer current.  I know it’s a pain to keep track of changing passwords, but it’s worth it.

There are also several apps that can manage your passwords for you.  I use a service called LastPass, they keep track of your passwords for you and you only need to remember one master password to access your other passwords.  This can be a great way to manage your passwords.

Also, please, please, please, please.  Change the name and password on your home wireless router.  If you don’t someone right outside your house can have full access to all your information and files that are kept on your computers.

Encrypt your email

No point in taking all these other steps when everything you send in your email can be read by someone else.  Now the point of an email is to be read by the receiver, but while in transit your email can be read by anyone who happens to snag it off a server.  A simple way to avoid this snooping is using email encryption.  This basically garbles the content of your email while it is in transit and then it is decoded only by the person you chose to have read it.

Here is an example, I sent an encrypted message that simply said: “This email is encrypted” if someone I didn’t intend got a hold of the email somehow, they would only see this:

—–BEGIN PGP MESSAGE—–
Version: CryptUP 3.0.4 Easy Gmail Encryption https://cryptup.org
Comment: Seamlessly send, receive and search encrypted email
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=1TI6
—–END PGP MESSAGE—–

Without my public key for the email, there is no way anyone can read this.  The service I use, CryptUp allows me to add a simple challenge question to the email to let someone who doesn’t have my key open it.  This question should only be something that the other person would know.

I know this seems like a pain, but trust me, it’s worth it.  With the amount of personal information we send in our emails and submit to websites.  It pays to take a little time to protect your valuable information.

Social Media

Seriously, this is the biggest threat to your online safety.  The amount of information that is available to someone targeting you or just phishing for information is staggering.  Social media can be a great way to stay in touch with people and share, but you need to be smart about how you do it.  First off, you should change all your security settings so that no one, besides people you have selected can see your profiles and info. Two, don’t let people tag you in photos without your permission. Three, don’t include location info in your public profile.

Someone could easily see that you check in at home a lot.  And then, when you post you are out an about, they know that they can rob your house with a good chance of you not being home.

Also, if you post a bunch of pictures of your kids and where they go to school this could make them targets also.  Not saying you shouldn’t or can’t do this, but just be smart about it.  Take the time to really look at the security settings for your public facing accounts.

Bottom Line

The internet is a great and powerful tool.  But it is not without it’s dangers.  There are a lot of people out there looking to take advantage of folks who aren’t paying attention.  Don’t be a victim.  Just a little awareness of the dangers and a couple of preventive steps can go a long way to protecting yourself and your information online.