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Most of us know how to maintain privacy offline — if you lock up your house, keep your passport in a safe place, think twice before telling someone your social security number, your information is pretty safe.
Online, things get a little murkier.
In an earlier Tech Tip, I covered one of the most important measures you can take to maintain online privacy: Create a secure password (click here to read how to create a strong, secure password). In this Tech Tip, I’ll tell you other steps you can take to protect your privacy online so you can browse websites, shop, use Facebook and email without worrying about people you don’t know accessing your personal information.
Since email is a popular form of communication, it’s also a popular place for spammers and hackers — between them, they breach both your privacy and your security.
Some good guidelines to follow:
- Only open emails sent by someone you recognize or a company you know. If you receive an email that seems like it’s coming from a strange place, or if the subject line is pushing you to buy something or telling you that you won something, it’s best to mark the email as spam.
- If you receive an email from a friend that says something to the effect of “I’m far from home, my passport and all my cash were stolen/I got mugged and I need you to send me money” ignore it! Your friend’s email account has been hacked, and the hacker is hoping that someone will fall for the ploy.
- If you bank or manage credit cards online, watch out. Hackers can now design emails to look as if they’re coming from your bank, and can create fake bank websites. Be especially wary of emails linking you to any site that asks you to enter your credit card or account information, or your banking password. Instead of clicking to the site from the email, close the email and go directly to the website by typing the URL in the address bar.
- Avoid sending emails that contain sensitive personal information, even to friends. Even if you trust the person, you can’t guarantee your information will be safe. If your friend’s email password is weak, or if they leave their email open on a public computer, your information could be compromised.
Facebook has millions of users across the world and allows Google and other search engines to access profiles, unless you tell it not to. Fortunately, Facebook makes it very easy to control your privacy settings so you can decide how private or public you want your profile to be.
Most people who are concerned about privacy chose not to include telephone number and email address on their profile. Your close friends already have that information, and acquaintances can message you through Facebook if they need to; Facebook will send you an email to let you know you have a message.
- To visit your profile’s Privacy Settings and Tools to determine who can access your profile, click here and follow the steps. You have the option of limiting certain parts of your profile to just your friends, to friends of friends, or leaving it public. The right option for you depends on how you use Facebook. If you’re a private person, you may want to restrict access to your profile to only those who you are already friends with. If you want old friends from way back to be able to find you, you could select “Friends of Friends” or “Public.” The last question lets you to hide your profile from search engines like Google. Expand the box by clicking the edit button. If the box next to “Let other search engines link to your timeline” is unchecked, your profile will not show up in search results.
- When you participate in a Facebook promotion sponsored by a company, allow a game or app to access your profile or use your Facebook account to log in to another website, you are allowing that third party to access your information. They can use this information for the purposes of the contest (to contact you if you win) or to have your data for account login purposes. Sometimes an app might also ask to post content, comments, and likes to your newsfeed; if you don’t want that to happen, just cancel installation of the app. And at any time, you can easily remove applications from your Facebook account. To review your Facebook applications and remove the ones you don’t need, click here and follow the steps.
- Often a contest will prompt you to share with your friends to gain additional entries. You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. You will still be entered if you don’t share.
- If you participate in a Facebook contest or promotion, the company will likely ask you right before you click “Enter” if they can send you emails for marketing purposes. This is often in smaller print and requires you to check or uncheck a box depending on what your preference is. If you don’t want to receive emails from that company, make sure to check the appropriate box.
Using Your Credit Card Online
Shopping online is becoming more and more secure. Before entering your credit card information on any site, follow these tips:
- Look at the top by the website URL or the bottom of your browser for an icon of a locked padlock. This ensures the site has a Secure Sockets Layers (SSL) to encrypt and protect your credit card information. Another way to know if a site has SLL is to look at the beginning of the URL. If it starts with HTTPS:// (instead of just HTTP://), it is safe to shop online with that site.
- Many websites ask you to create an account to check out, but this often isn’t necessary. You can check out as a guest; then you won’t have to create an account and password, or save your credit card information on the site.
- Shop online only at home. If you forget to log out of an account on a public or shared computer, the next person could make more purchases on your card.
- Password protect your at-home wifi. Even if you’re using your credit card online in the safety of your own home, if your wifi network is open, anyone closeby could access the information you’re sending online. It’s more secure to shop online under a protected network. If your Internet company did not help you set up a password protected network when they installed your wifi, give them a call and ask them to.
- For the same reason, avoid online shopping on public, shared networks. Not only could someone see over your shoulder and write down your information at a Starbucks or the public library, but advanced hackers could tap into the open network and easily take your credit card number. Wait until you are home to shop online under a protected network.
You may have heard of Internet cookies in regards to Internet safety. Cookies are not necessarily unsafe; for the most part, they are harmless and are just something you should be aware of.
Cookies are small pieces of data that websites use to store useful information about you. When you come back to that same website later, cookies allow you to pick up where you left off. For example, if you were shopping online, put a few items in your cart, closed your session, then came back later, you would still see the items in your cart – that is a result of cookies. They also help some websites personalize your experience. Cookies are the reason you might start seeing online advertisements elsewhere for a website you recently visited or a product you looked at online. It might feel spooky; the fact is, retailers store information about your purchase habits even when you shop offline.
A couple of privacy tips:
- Log out of any accounts once you end a session on a shared or public computer, and create online accounts only on your personal computer at home.
- If you feel uncomfortable knowing that websites might have some information on you, follow these steps to clear your computer’s cookies according to what browser you use.
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