How to Protect Your Personal Info From Cybercrooks

Could you become a victim of a cyber attack? Definitely. According to a report published earlier this year, some 14 percent of home computer networks in the United States are infected with malware – an umbrella term that includes a range of Internet-borne computer infections including viruses, worms, spyware and Trojan horses. Once unleashed in your computer, malware can make your computer act unpredictably, gather your personal info and even gain access to your computer system and mess around in there.  How can you keep your computer – and your bank account – safe? Here are some dos and don’ts.

keep your virus protection up to date

Ever seen that little pop-up window that advises you to update your anti-virus software and paid no attention because, well, why bother? Think again. Those folks who write the malware code that infects computers are smart. As soon as the company that makes your computer security software detects a new threat, cyberscammers are figuring out how to make a new nasty. By installing critical updates to your antivirus software whenever you see the update alert, you can make your PC less vulnerable to known attacks. Just be sure that the pop-up you get comes from your anti-virus provider (it should say so); scammers sometimes use aggressive anti-virus pop-ups to scare users into downloading malware.

A lot of great anti-virus products are on the market. They’ll all do the job, but they come with different features and flaws. provides a great review of these each year that can help you chose which one to buy. A few good products are even free. And most of them will both protect your system and detect and remove existing problems from your system.

use your kid’s name/birthplace/city you met your sweetie, etc. as your password

We typically prove our identity on the Web through a username and password, which is why weak and ineffective passwords open the door for identity theft. You might think no one’s ever going to guess the name of your favorite elementary-school teacher, but in fact, sophisticated cybercriminals don’t always guess at passwords – they use specialized software that can rapidly run through dictionary words and other character combinations until they get a hit. Here are a few simple things you can do to make your passwords harder to crack:

  • Avoid any word that’s in the dictionary
  • Use a combination of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers and special characters like ?, @, or $
  • Change your password frequently – three to four times per year should be fine. Usually, you can do that by finding the relevant site’s Account or Account Settings link and following instructions.
  • If you keep your password written down, don’t store that record on your computer. (Remember that malware can help scammers gain access to your files.)
  • Don’t use the same password for more than one account

use a secure, up-to-date Internet browser
Major browsers like Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Safari offer a fair amount of protection against malware and other cyberthreats, but older versions are subject to security flaws. For the best online protection, make sure you have the most up-to-date version of your browser installed.  (it should ask you to install updates from time to time). Check to make sure you’re using the newest version of your browser by visiting the maker’s website. When your browser prompts you to download updates, do it promptly.

shop via a secure SSL connection
SSL (or Secure Socket Layer) is a networking protocol that encrypts data before it is transmitted across the Web. This is the only kind of connection you should use to send payment information when shopping online. Once you check out with your purchases and are prompted to enter credit card information, you should ensure that the URL in your browser’s address bar starts with “https://” – not “http.” The “S” is for security, and it helps prevent cyberbaddies from intercepting your financial information. Depending on your browser, websites with SSL certificates may also produce a padlock icon on the address bar. Virtually all major retailers – and even many smaller sites – are now equipped with this technology. There’s no excuse for shopping without it!

make financial transactions over public Wi-Fi
If you’re on an open Wi-Fi network – for example, at the airport or in a coffee shop or library – avoid making sensitive transactions that involve financial information. This includes making an online purchase where you enter your credit card info, accessing your bank account online and paying your utility bill online. This information is traveling over a network that could be accessed by others, putting you at risk of credit card or other financial fraud or theft.

use your credit card
Many online payment systems now accept debit cards, but this is one case where it might pay to take on some debt in exchange for keeping details about your checking account locked down. Many credit card providers also have “zero liability” policies when it comes to unauthorized use of your card, which means that if a cybercrook starts using it, you’re off the hook. A final layer of protection comes in the form of federal laws that allow credit card holders to dispute any item they purchase but don’t receive. Consider reserving one credit card with a low maximum balance just for online shopping.

open a questionable link. Ever.
That includes not only links and attachments from someone you don’t know, but also a link or attachment in an email from a friend that seems to come out of left field (“check out this cool new site”; “50 hottest chicks online”) or that has a “shortened URL” structure that makes it basically illegible (it might look something like this: ). That’s because cyberbaddies could have hacked into your friend’s email account and sent evil links to her whole contacts list – including you. Check in with your friend before you open anything. Don’t worry, simply opening the email won’t expose you to any malware.

lose sleep
Some malware is very serious – it can steal passwords, gain access to your files and monitor your activity to get into bank accounts and other important data. But in reality, the vast majority of malware does little more than slow down your computer or hit you with annoying pop-up ads. As long as you’re taking the appropriate precautions to protect your system, you can relax.

Photo: © Olivier Le Queinec |


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