The internet has become an essential part of our daily lives, connecting us with friends and family, and the world at large. We can’t afford to get away from it, nor do most of us want to get away from its comforting omnipresence.
Yet, the intangible nature of the web can often lead users to forget that the online world also poses significant risks to our personal and financial security. Cyber-criminals are always on the lookout for any sensitive information they can steal including passwords, credit card data, potential victims’ intimate details and much more.
There are some very simple steps you should ideally take to reduce your risk of becoming a victim of cyber-crime while browsing the internet. Let’s get down to them right away.
- Check URLs Before Clicking
Never click on a link without checking the URL (web address) thoroughly. It doesn’t matter whether someone you trust sent you that link or it appeared at the top of the search results page when you were looking up something.
First off, make sure the website you’re about to visit is secured with an SSL certificate. How can you tell? Simply look for the “https://” at the start of the URL. Never click on a link that begins with “http://”. But it doesn’t end there.
Say, you were planning to binge watch a sci-fi series on Hulu or enjoy a spot of PlayUp betting, for example, and typed the name of these sites into the search bar. Apart from the correctly spelled URLs you might also come across “Huluu.com” or “PalyUp.com” in the search results.
What many folks don’t realize is that deliberately misspelled domains are frequently registered and set up by hackers with the express purpose of tricking people into visiting them. It’s a kind of social engineering attack that relies on the victim’s familiarity with a website or brand and/or their inattention.
Once the trap has been sprung, and depending on which site is being mimicked, the unsuspecting target might end up giving away their login information, personal data or even credit card details to cyber-criminals via the spurious website, and not even know it happened until it’s too late.
- Keep Software & Browsers Updated
Companies often roll out security patches to fix newly discovered vulnerabilities to protect your devices from malware and other possible threats.
So make sure that all the software and apps on your computer and mobile devices are updated regularly. Perform the same check for your browsers too.
Also, don’t be lazy to restart your computer or the app to apply any updates, if prompted to do so by the system. It’s not an arbitrary suggestion and may actually be required for the files in question to be updated properly.
- Install An Anti-Virus Program
You should also consider using anti-virus software to protect your computing devices from malware. Anti-virus software can detect and remove viruses, trojans, and other types of malware that are created to compromise your security and privacy.
There are many great anti-virus options out there such as Avast, Sophos, Norton, F-Secure and Avira. Some of these are free. So there’s really no excuse to pretend you’re perfectly comfortable with just the built-in firewall protection that comes with your computer.
- Use A VPN
Now, this isn’t an article about how you can completely hide yourself from the web—email address, device fingerprint and all. But leaning on a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to mask some or all of your web activities has become too mainstream to omit it from this post.
A VPN is a tool that encrypts your internet connection and hides your IP address, making it difficult for hackers to intercept your online activities. VPNs are especially handy when using public Wi-Fi networks, which are often not secure enough.
Some VPNs even let you get past geo-blocks on streaming platforms. So say you have a Netflix US subscription and are traveling to another country. But you were in the middle of watching the Tycho Station coup in The Expanse! Your only hope might lie in a service such as ExpressVPN, Surfshark or CyberGhost to help you evade geo-locked content.
VPNs even come in very handy when doing a simple search on Bing or Google. Let’s face it; the search results on certain topics are sometimes trash. And the only way to get around it is to look up the same topic after switching on your VPN and selecting a different server.
- Avoid Downloading Content From Fishy Sources
Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store are the official marketplaces for downloading apps and games for Android and iOS/ Mac devices, respectively. Apps for your Windows PC can be downloaded from the Microsoft Store.
System software updates are pushed directly to your computing device by the manufacturer in question. The same can be said for app updates which can be set to be downloaded by default or when you check for them.
For everything else you wish to download, use good judgment and basic research skills. Third-party sources for software and apps aren’t a complete no-no. But if an app or software looks fishy, or the site offering it appears disreputable, avoid hitting the download button.
- Never Give Away Personal Information Unnecessarily
The internet does not only give identity thieves another avenue from which to snatch data such as social security numbers, credit card info, passwords and more. Social media can also provide threat actors with a wealth of information users might not even realize they’re giving away.
Details about your pets, your family, your relationships, your favorite movies and so on may be used by hackers to guess your passwords, for example. Posting blow-by-blow updates about your trips abroad can give cyber-criminals information about exactly where you’ll be at a certain time or date, and even let them steal your frequent flyer miles, if they get the opportunity.
Lastly, cancel culture has proven that stuff posted online lives on forever, and does not disappear into the ether, as many would imagine it. So even if you’re not afraid of identity thieves and hackers, you might want to think twice before posting anything that could affect employment opportunities or any degrees you might want to pursue.
- Do Not Open Suspicious Emails or Messages
One of the most common ways that cyber-criminals try to gain access to sensitive information is through phishing scams. Phishing typically involves sending a potential victim an email or a message that looks like it’s from a legitimate source such as a bank, their workplace or a social media site. The message will often ask them to click on a link or provide sensitive information.
Sometimes, phishing attacks are designed to deliver malicious content such as viruses or ransomware to the target’s computer or mobile device. Malware may be sent as mail attachments or they may be downloaded unwittingly when a victim clicks on a dangerous link they received over email.
- Use A Strong Password & Enable 2FA
One of the most important steps to stay secure online is to use strong and unique passwords for each of your online accounts. Accounts secured by weak passwords such as “123456” or “password” can be easily hacked by cyber-criminals. Some people use simple passwords due to the fear of forgetting them and having to go through the pesky process of resetting them.
Why put your personal and sensitive information at risk when you can use a password manager like Bitwarden, Dashlane or NordPass to remember all those complicated passwords for you?
In addition to setting strong passwords, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) wherever available. It is an extra layer of security that requires you to provide two pieces of evidence to verify your identity before you can access your online account. This can include something such as your password, and a security token or a verification code send to your phone.
Multi-factor authentication can stop hackers from accessing your account, even if they have your password. Most online services, including email, social media, and banking offer 2FA.
Apart from the aforementioned tips, backing up your important data, installing an ad blocker, avoiding the use of unsecured public Wi-Fi networks and turning up the online privacy settings available to you to full blast, are some other simple steps you can take to protect yourself from hackers.
In an era of increased online threats, it’s more important than ever to stay vigilant about these dangers. By implementing the basic cyber security practices we’ve mentioned above, you can ensure that your online experiences stay as safe, secure, and enjoyable as possible.