Internet Security: A Guide to Staying Safe Online

Introduction

Whether you access the internet at home, at work, or in school, you should always take online security seriously. Falling victim to scams, viruses, trojan horses, malware, adware, and countless other problems is so easy to do even if you are aware of the risks.

Staying safe while online requires sticking to a few basic rules. This guide covers the main risk areas and how to improve your personal cybersecurity whenever and wherever you access the internet.

Chapter 1: Use Antivirus Software

New viruses come out every day, and the best way to protect yourself is to use trusted antivirus software on your computer. Antivirus software is constantly updated to protect your computer from the latest threats as they emerge, and it should be considered essential whenever you go online.

Choose a software package from a trusted vendor, of which there are many (two of the biggest being McAfee and Norton). Bitdefender is another good option, and AVG is popular and has a free version that is suitable for home use.

Antivirus software does more than just protect your computer from viruses and malware. Depending on the product you use, it can also protect your privacy, prevent you from visiting unsafe websites, help you to locate a lost device, and provide secure online storage.

What About Smartphones and Tablets?

The risks posed by viruses and malware to smartphones and tablets are growing. As mobile devices become increasingly important for accessing the internet, the temptation for criminals to target them grows.

Nowadays you can purchase antivirus protection for your phone and tablet as well as your computer. For example, Norton has a product for that covers phones and tablets, and Bitdefender has a dedicated product for Android phones. AVG also provides a free version for Android devices.

Also be particularly careful when downloading apps. Apps for mobiles and tablets are popular because they are so easy to use. But while apps in the Apple App Store are generally safe because Apple controls the apps, the situation is different for Android devices. Always make sure you are downloading genuine apps, and read the reviews before downloading them to pick up on any warning signs.

Chapter 2: Keeping Your Online Accounts Safe

Viruses and malware are a real threat, and antivirus software is a must. However, many hackers and criminals rely on the weakest link to get what they want: human error. The actions you take—or fail to take—online can leave you exposed to risks, so it is important to stick to safe online practices.

Passwords are one of the biggest problem areas for everyday internet users. Hackers can often crack passwords that are too basic, allowing them to get access to your personal accounts. To reduce the risk of this happening to you:

  • Use a different password for all of your accounts
  • Make your passwords as long as possible
  • Do not use a password that could easily be guessed
  • Make your passwords completely random
  • Use a selection of letters, numbers, and symbols
  • Never reveal your password to anyone

The problem with doing all this is that it makes passwords harder to remember, and this is where a password manager comes into place. Two of the best managers are 1Password and LastPass, and these will both store all of your passwords securely and allow you to access them with one master password. This is one of the simplest ways to make sure your passwords are as secure as they can be.

If you would like to read more on this topic, WordPress and Google both provide detailed advice on password management.

Chapter 3: Password Protect Your Devices

On the subject of passwords, make sure you also password protect your computers, phones, and tablets. It may take a little bit longer to access them, but the extra security is well worth it.

Then if someone steals your device, they will not be able to get access to your online accounts and personal information, giving you the opportunity to change your passwords and keep your online accounts safe.

Use Two-Step Verification Where Possible

Another step that you can take to protect your accounts is to use two-step verification. Many services are now offering this, so always use it where it is available.

To use two-step verification, you will usually have to provide the company with your cellphone number. When you type in your password online from a device for the first time, the company will send you a text message containing a code. You then insert the code to get access to your account. This prevents anyone from accessing your account unless they have access to your phone as well, making it much more secure.

Google provides a detailed guide to its two-step verification process that you can read about here.

Be Careful with Emails

Emails are another area where you should exercise caution. Attachments in emails are a common way to transmit viruses, and phishing emails can allow criminals to capture your bank details and steal other personal information.

Ensure you have a powerful anti-spam function in place, and do not even open spam email unless you think it is from someone you know and has wrongly been sent to your spam folder.

Never download attachments unless you are absolutely sure that the email is from someone you trust. Antivirus software can often scan attachments for viruses in case the person you trust has sent you an infected file by mistake.

ComputerWeekly.com provides a useful guide to email security that you may want to read for more information.

Phishing emails are fake emails designed to look real. The most common scam is to send you an email that claims to be from your bank asking you to visit the website and insert your details. When you click on the link you are sent to a fake website, which would look exactly like your bank’s site. You are then asked to login with your username and password and this is where the criminals steal your password and other secure details.

Real banks never send emails asking for your password information, so be very cautious when you receive such an email. Always visit your bank's website from a new tab and type in their address rather than clicking on a link in an email.

You can learn more about phishing and report phishing emails at US-CERT.

Secure Your Wi-Fi Network

Wi-Fi is the most convenient way to connect to the internet, especially if you want to connect more than one device in your home. However, make sure your Wi-Fi network is secure. This involves:

  • using encryption, preferably Wi-Fi Protected Access II (WPA2) because it is the strongest. You should be able to do this in the security settings.
  • changing your router settings so that the SSID remains hidden and potential hackers therefore won’t be able to find it.
  • changing the name of your network (the Service Set Identifier or SSID) so that hackers cannot guess the manufacturer of the router.
  • ensuring you use a strong password to gain access to your network.

Also be careful when you use a public Wi-Fi network such as in a café. Never visit a sensitive site like online banking on a public Wi-Fi network because criminals can quite easily steal your data in this way.

Detailed information about Wi-Fi security can be found at OnGuardOnline.gov for further reading.

Be Careful of Dangerous Links

Sometimes your computer can get infected by a virus if you simply click on a bad link while browsing the internet. There are endless stories in the press about viruses on Facebook and social media sites—this story on TweakTown is just one recent example.

Sometimes antivirus software will tell you when a link is not trusted, but not always. So always be vigilant and be especially careful of adverts promising easy riches or those related to pornography.

Keep Everything Up to Date

Whatever operating system you are using, always install updates when they are released. Apple and Microsoft regularly send important security updates, and downloading these will help to keep your devices safer. Apps on smartphones and tablets will also release updates regularly, and it is a good practice to update these as soon as they become available.

Use Trusted Video Plugins

When you want to watch a video online, you may be asked to download a plugin to view it. Always research the plugin before you download it—quick search online should reveal if there is anything to be wary of.

You can also download trusted video software to your computer like Windows Media Player, QuickTime Player, Microsoft Silverlight, RealPlayer Cloud, or VLC, which should allow you to watch most video content.

Stay Safe Online

You should not be overly paranoid about your online activity, but do take precautions. As you get into the habit of using stronger passwords, avoiding suspicious links, and installing system updates, most of it will become second nature. The internet offers so many benefits, whether you use it for study, work, or leisure. But always be aware of the risks when you are online, and make sure you stay safe.

Further Resources for Online Safety Information

There are many websites where you can get access to further detailed information on staying safe online. Here are a few where you can find up-to-date information:

  • ConnectSafely: Tips, news, and advice for staying safe online
  • Kids.gov: Online safety guide for kids
  • FBI.gov: Online safety guide for parents
  • GetNetWise.org: Selection of resources for online safety for families