When you think about it, we transmit a whole lot of personal information through our computers. We shop, pay bills, book travel and conduct business online. Most of our intimate communications and searches are done via the Internet. More and more personal and business services are being processed online and sensitive data once assumed to be safe is now stored in … well, it's not always clear where the data is stored.
As society continues to move toward all things digital, many “sensitive” services can now be done online. If you find yourself opting for the keyboard instead of the cash register, you'll want to make sure you know how the data is being encrypted during transfer and protected once delivered. Here are some tips to get started.
Browse on secure websites
Most websites today that process sensitive information utilize TLS (Transport Layer Security) or SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption. TLS is a newer technology than SSL, but both serve to protect data transfer online and help servers “talk” to each other without virtual eavesdroppers.
If you're browsing a website and want to confirm that you're on a secure connection, check to see that the URL starts with “https://” instead of “http://” and look for a lock symbol in the bottom right corner of your browser window. Both of these signal a secure connection.
Avoid getting ‘phished'
“Phishing” scams attempt to gain valuable information (such as a password or account information) by appearing to be from a legitimate source like your bank. Let's say you get an email from Bank of America saying your account has been suspended, and you need to reactivate it by entering your login information. By entering your personal information through this fake email, you've given a hacker somewhere access to your account.
Sometimes, phishing emails will try to “mask” links to websites. For example, a URL listed as redcross.org in the email might look legitimate, but if you scroll your mouse over it you may see an odd series of numbers or randomized letters. Scams related to charities seem to pop up more frequently during times of tragedy or after natural disasters. (Go figure.)
Aside from email, phishing scams can take place over social networks. We've all seen those posts on a friend's wall about something incredibly hilarious or depressing—but you have to enter your password somewhere to see it (which is how your information gets compromised).
To avoid getting phished, never provide your account information or password to any site you did not visit on your own. Don't click through a URL on a website unless you're confident that the sender is someone you trust (and the URL you see when you scroll over a link proves the site's identity). And avoid giving third-party apps or sites access to your social networking account, as malicious programmers may embed code that attacks your account and the accounts of those in your network.
Safely connect to Wi-Fi in public places
Free wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) at your local coffee shop sounds like a great idea, but you have to be careful even before you log on. Ensure that a firewall is up and running on your computer (or download a reputable one if you don't yet have one).
Avoid entering personal information into any online forms, since online security is practically nonexistent on a free public network. Conducting a sensitive transaction while on such a network is akin to using a blow horn to announce your logins and passwords.
And if you're not using the Internet, turn your computer's Wi-Fi capability off so no one can access your files without your knowledge.
Use a VPN connection
The other security option for connecting to an unsecure wireless network is through a VPN (Virtual Private Network) that uses a tunneling technology combined with data encryption to securely connect to private networks when in public spaces. Many companies provide VPN connections to log in remotely, which makes it safer to share files. For general personal use, there are a host of VPN solutions that can be paid monthly.
If you're conducting personal and sensitive business online, it's important to do what you can to stay safe. Complete security on the Internet is not guaranteed; however, taking certain precautions, such as verifying that your bank's website uses an encrypted connection before you log in to your account, can help reduce the chances of your information getting into the wrong hands.
In today's digital world, it's the least you can do to protect yourself.
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