We were all raised with street safety basics:
“Look both ways before crossing the street.”
“Don’t talk to strangers.”
“Don’t get into a strange vehicle.”
These rules can keep us safe because they encourage a mindset of healthy caution, especially as we enter our adult lives. But many of us received little-to-no education about online safety. As our world becomes more connected and moves online, we encounter serious cyber threats more frequently.
Luckily, most of those street-smart rules carry over to your digital world.
You may know the basics and might even have some antivirus software installed on your computer, but is that enough? What steps can you take to stay safe and empowered online? What mistakes should you avoid? A little awareness can go a long way.
Avoiding Personal Responsibility
It might be tempting to think that your data is safe and that you don’t have to take many security measures. After all, why would anyone target you? You’re not a high-profile billionaire – but you can still be targeted like one.
Taking even basic steps toward securing your personal data and devices will go a long way.
Despite how technically advanced hacking looks in movies, you don’t have to be a computer guru to keep your information safe. Most computers come with free security software, and simply keeping your computer up to date can do wonders for your long-term security. It’s also helpful to learn how to recognize scams or shady programs and spot suspicious activity online.
Consider adopting daily habits like checking your bank accounts for unusual transactions (and set up alerts from each bank while you’re at it). In addition, pay attention to your computer’s performance over time so you can notice any decreased performance or slower speeds, which might be signs of a virus.
Remember, the easiest mistake you can make with your personal security is to do nothing at all.
Not Reaching Out for Help
If something seems weird on your computer, it’s best to look into it. If the issue seems way over your head, get a tech-savvy friend or an IT professional to check things out. Never assume that problems will just go away on their own.
Reaching out for help is as simple as asking or researching a trusted source for recommended antivirus, anti-malware and pop-up blocking software and extensions. If things get really bad, you can always call in an expert. The key is to figure out who can solve the problem and let them fix it. Don’t wait for your computer issues to resolve themselves.
Engaging with Potentially Malicious Messages
Beware of any emails or messages from unknown sources. Messages with incomprehensible writing and sketchy links are usually worth reporting as a scam. Don’t forward chain emails, don’t download those attachments and don’t reply to these types of emails – chances are that’ll only loop you in for more of the same.
Trust us, there’s not a single foreign prince in the world who wants to send you his gold anonymously. And sorry, StarBabe578kzy isn’t the love of your life.
Even if you’re being cautious, shared computers pose a security threat as kids and other temporary users may not apply the same caution while online. Setting parental controls and site blockers can help ensure that even if you’re away from your computer, no other user will (accidentally) engage with spam links or scams.
You should also clean up your inbox regularly. It’s not enough to merely avoid scam emails by not clicking on them. It’s worth the extra effort to report any scams and delete the emails – you never know if someone who uses your computer will accidentally click a bad link.
Neglecting Passphrases and Privacy
We have passphrases for just about everything these days. Many of us rely on a single passphrase from site to site, which means that if someone steals your account information from a breached site or service, you’re vulnerable everywhere else too.
Avoid this by creating lengthy passphrases (not passwords!) and using a different one for each website or service you log in to. Don’t worry about forgetting them. Keep a list that’s stored in a safe, secure place away from your computer. You can alternatively use a service like a passphrase manager to keep track of them.
Also, just as you lock doors and close windows and blinds, you should be careful about what you’re posting and uploading to the internet. Social media can be great for connecting to friends and family, but it’s also a place for the bad guys to exploit your information.
Review the privacy settings on your social media accounts. Consider setting your non-business profiles to private and limiting who can see what you post. In addition, it never hurts to think twice before posting. Information about where you’re going, where you work, live and socialize is potentially compromising.
Not Cleaning Out Your Old Files
Even if you have tons of storage available, you should still perform regular maintenance on your old files. With a cluttered computer, it’s harder to spot new files or programs that can be dragging your computer down or collecting your information. By keeping your files organized, it’s easier to recognize what you use regularly and back up your important files – such as family photos, financial or medical records and business data – often.
Not Reporting Issues
You can help prevent future problems for yourself and other users by reporting harassment, suspicious activity and scam profiles. Most social media platforms have this feature built into every post, but you can always contact a site administrator if there’s a problem.
Gather up any evidence you may need, including taking screenshots, especially if there’s an ongoing issue. Even if you’re not engaging with a problematic person or account, your extra effort to report them can help keep everyone safer and more secure.
While the world of cybersecurity may seem intimidating, a few simple steps can make all the difference:
- Take ownership over your own cybersecurity
- Reach out to trusted experts with security questions you may have
- Reject strange offers, requests, messages and links
- Make your passphrases longer and don’t reuse them
- Follow a basic hygiene routine for your devices and information – clean up your files
- Keep your devices and software updated
- Report any suspicious and/or threatening behavior
Get the basics down and you’ll feel empowered to use more technology and explore all it has to offer.
Trevor Wheelwright is an expert on all things internet and specializes in writing about making our online lives easier and safer.