By: Charles P. Jefferies
Internet threats continue to pose a problem for anyone that surfs the Internet — and yes, that includes you reading the headline and thinking you know it all. In this article we will show you how to protect yourself using some “best practices” for safely surfing the Internet, all without spending a dime.
Background on Internet Threats
Anyone can throw around terms such as “spyware” and “viruses”, but what exactly are they? It helps to know before trying to figure out how best to avoid such problems. Here are the basics:
- Malware: Short for “malicious software”. Resides and runs on a user’s computer without their consent or knowledge. Malware can be used as an all-inclusive term for viruses, spyware, keyloggers, worms, and Trojan horses, and other Internet threats.
- Spyware: A type of malware that collects information about users, including personal information and habits (sites they visited). It can also trigger popups and install additional malware.
- Virus: A type of malware that can replicate itself and infect other computers through a network or media (such as a flash drive). Viruses can do multiple harmful things to a user’s computer, such as taking it over and using it for malicious purposes.
Three Steps to Internet Safety
This guide will take you through three relatively simple steps to protect yourself on the Internet:
- Install Mozilla Firefox
- Install the McAfee Site Advisor tool
- Change your online habits
Step One: Install Mozilla Firefox
Yes, “Install Mozilla Firefox” may be clich; however, there is sound reasoning why this is a good piece of software. Let’s cut the marketing nonsense — here are the tangible things I like about Firefox:
- Pop-up blocker: Pop-ups are perhaps the most annoying form of advertising, and Firefox takes care of them for you. It will let you know a pop-up was blocked in case you were expecting one.
- Unsafe site warnings: If you go to a website that is fraudulent, untrusted, or has known security problems, Firefox will actually prevent the site from loading.
- Integration with anti-virus software: Firefox works with your resident anti-virus program to scan downloaded files for security threats.
- Automatic updates: Firefox automatically updates itself, so your defenses stay current.
- Private browsing: Firefox normally remembers what websites you visited, however in private browsing mode (which is easy to toggle on and off), it will not remember anything you did. This feature is handy when logging into banking sites that you want to leave no trace of on your computer (or someone else’s). Private Browsing can be activated from the tools menu and clicking “Start Private Browsing”; do the same to turn it off:
Without further delay, follow this link to Mozilla’s official website and download Firefox for your computer.
Firefox is a small 8MB download. Click Download and then save the file to your computer to a location you know (such as My Documents). Double-click the downloaded file and install Firefox with the default settings. Done? Great! Those familiar with Internet Explorer should be able to adapt to Firefox without much trouble — it gets natural after a day.
Step Two: Install the McAfee Site Advisor Tool
Certain websites are created with malicious intent; for example, some might try to infect your computer with malware and others might be fake phishing sites designed to steal your personal information. McAfee, a computer security company, has a Site Advisor tool that displays ratings next to links in search engines (such as Google and Yahoo), indicating whether or not the listed sites are safe (see here for thorough information on how it works). Site Advisor works with both Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer. Simply download and then install McAfee Site Advisor using the default settings (leave everything as-is, though I recommend unchecking the option to install the unnecessary Yahoo toolbar).
Once installed, restart Firefox and test Site Advisor out. Make sure your default search provider is set to McAfee first — in the top right next to the search box, click the down arrow and select McAfee Secure Search:
Now search for something and check out the results page — each link has a little icon next to it that indicates whether the site is safe or not.
Green means good, yellow is caution, and red means unsafe/untrusted. A question mark indicates the site has not been scanned yet. As a rule of thumb, only click on the green links.
Below is an example of what search results look like after installing the Site Advisor tool:
And yes, NotebookReview.com is totally safe — but you knew that.
The Site Advisor tool is great to have when you are searching for things you do not usually search for (and thus might be unfamiliar with sites that come up). It never hurts to double-check. As always, use your judgment when clicking on links. If something is too good to be true, it is.
Step Three: Change Your Online Habits
The single greatest danger you face on the Internet is yourself. More specifically, there is no software that can compensate for your poor Internet safety habits.
Let’s start with how much critical information you willingly give away. This is the Internet — information posted online can be seen by almost anyone, and secure websites can be hacked. Even restricted pages such as your Facebook profile are not entirely safe — someone with access (such as your “friends”) could copy and paste the information to a Web page that isn’t truly private. The bottom line here is that you need to be extra careful with yourself on the Internet. Below are a few of the habits I see daily that present huge security risks to the users:
? Connecting to unsecured wireless networks: You know that coffee shop down the street that offers free Wi-Fi? That free Wi-Fi access could cost you a lot if it is unsecured (Windows will indicate whether a network is secured/unsecured when you try to connect). An unsecured connection is an open network that allows anyone to connect — information passed from your laptop to the wireless router and vice versa can be intercepted by people with the right tools since it is not encrypted. Additionally, network attacks can be made from other computers connected to the network.
Internet Safety Habit: Avoid unsecured Wi-Fi
? Accessing secure websites in public: Even on a secured network, remember that people can see what you type on your laptop screen. All it takes is one person to walk by with a camera phone and snap a picture of your online banking page. The same is true at your office, where all it takes is one nosy coworker poking over a cubicle wall or an unscrupulous network administrator spying on your workstation to snag your passwords.
Internet Safety Habit: Access secure websites only at home
? Saving personal information on shopping websites: Most shopping sites offer to save your credit card and address information for easier checkout in the future. While this is convenient for the few sites you shop at regularly, please do not opt to save info on every site you shop. Though the information is supposedly secured, successful hacking attempts have occurred in the past and personal data has been stolen. Also, there are too many stories of personal information getting “lost”.
Internet Safety Habit: Don’t save credit card numbers on shopping sites
? Posting personal information on social networking sites: I find it amusing that people post the details of their personal lives on social networking sites such as Facebook, give a platoon of their “friends” access, and then complain about privacy issues. Am I the only one that can see the issue here?
Internet Safety Habit: Only post information online you want everyone to see
? Keep your computer personal: Internet browsers such as Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox make it easy to store password and form information (such as names and addresses used in order forms). Anyone that opens the web browser on your computer can check your browsing history, visit your “secure” sites (like your Web-based email) and automatically log in as you because you opted to have the browser save your password. Avoid storing passwords, or better yet, password-protect your computer and lock it when not in use (press the Windows key and L to lock your computer). Make a second account on your computer for other people to use so your information is kept separate, and make sure that account is password-protected and not an administrator.
Internet Safety Habit: Never save passwords on any computer that you share
? Do not install software you do not explicitly want: Many software vendors try to sneak additional pieces of software on your system during the install process. For example, toolbars for your Internet browser, updater tools, and other unnecessary (and annoying) items. If you wanted those pieces of software, you would have installed them on your own.
Internet Safety Habit: Install as little software as possible
Your online safety is 10% dependent on someone else and 90% dependent on you. The majority of risk factors can be controlled through the simple steps outlined in this article. Number one — control the online environment with a safe web browser. Mozilla Firefox has numerous advantages — it prevents you from going to malicious sites, scans files you download, blocks pop-ups, and helps safeguard personal data. Number two — links in search engines can be dangerous. McAfee’s Site Advisor tool helps identify which links are safe and vice versa — know something about a website before you click. Lastly, consciously think about your online actions and what you do with your personal information. Avoid unsecured wireless connections, lock your computer with a password when not in use, stop saving your credit card information on every site you visit, and last but not least, do not post information on Facebook you would not be comfortable sharing with the rest of the world.
These simple tips can help safeguard you from the majority of online threats. Your judgment plays a larger role than any piece of software can. Use the tools and tips mentioned in this article to stay safe.