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How to Stay Safe Online, Even if You’re Broke

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Guest post by David Ruiz

Staying safe in the real world can be a hassle. Installing a home security network? Expensive. Training a guard dog? Time-consuming. Hiding your wallet in an under-the-pants fanny pack? Sweaty.

Luckily, staying safe online is more manageable. In fighting back against hackers, viruses, and online trackers, here are some of the easiest, cheapest ways to protect you and your data when using the Internet.

Don’t Click That Unknown Link or Attachment!

Did you just get emailed by a long-lost friend who hasn’t hit you up in more than five years, telling you to check out some vague website? Be careful, because that might not be your friend, and that link might lead to a virus.

Avoid these like the plague…or rather a virus

One common way cyber thieves try to trick you is through a process called phishing. In phishing attacks, scammers send malicious links through emails that look credible, but definitely are not, asking email recipients to, for example, change their password, when what’s really happening is that victims are giving those passwords away. These kinds of attacks can also reveal credit card info and Social Security numbers.

Scammers can also pose as, say, FedEx, sending an email attachment allegedly containing info about a recent shipment. But what’s really in that attachment is a virus.

Be vigilant. Don’t click on links or open attachments in emails from unknown senders.

Want to learn more about spotting phishing attempts? You can take Google’s online quiz here.

Install an Antivirus

Did you know that for a brief period of time in the early 2000s, countless tweens downloaded viruses directly onto their family’s computers, driven by foolhardy attempts to find MP3s on risky file-sharing services? It’s true, we were that dumb.

The good news is, we don’t have to find music that way anymore. The bad news is, viruses are still around, and their distributors are getting bolder. Just this year, the City of Baltimore had its government services locked down from a ransomware attack.

To protect yourself from viruses and malware, download an antivirus program. According to the folks at CNET and The Wirecutter, the best free antivirus protection for computers running Windows 10 is Microsoft Defender, and, if you have some money to spend, the best protection for both Windows and Mac OS devices is Malwarebytes Premium.

Make Strong Passwords

Are you protecting your online accounts with the password “123456,” or “123456789”? Well, both are terrible passwords (and the two most common, sadly), and both should be changed immediately, as hackers often try to access people’s data by inputting the most popular passwords into victims’ online accounts.

Here’s a cartoon that explains it well courtesy of xkcd

You should make passwords that are long and difficult for any person—and computer—to guess. Exclude words and numbers that have a direct correlation to you, meaning, no addresses, no real names, no birthdays and, please, no Social Security numbers.

Also, hackers now employ some computer help in cracking passwords, having their machines guess every possible combination back-to-back until finding the right answer. In preventing these types of attacks, password length is more important than password “complexity.” So, a password like “S4nFranC1sCo!!” is less secure than “be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”

For some help getting started, look at Electronic Frontier Foundation’s passphrase activity.

Be Careful What You Post Online

Your online presence is a treasure trove of information for devoted hackers who want to attack you, specifically. By poring through your Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook feeds, a hacker can learn a lot about your life, including your address, your place of work, maybe even your pet’s name.

It’d be a shame if your passwords included any of that information, too, because that makes your online accounts vulnerable.

Use a Password Manager

Okay, you’ve created a bunch of long passwords for your accounts. How the hell are you supposed to remember them?

Simple. Download what’s called a “password manager.” Password manager apps, like 1Password and KeyPass, are devoted lockboxes for all your online account info, from your Bay Area FasTrak login to your California DMV password.

Download one of those apps, put your likely-dozens of online account details inside, and never worry again about remembering what your Subway MyWay account password is, or why you signed up for an online sandwich program in the first place.

Use a Device Passcode

While we’re talking about passwords, you should also use a passcode on your mobile device. After all, it’s probably the device you use the most to browse the Internet, so you should protect it. Also, if you lose your device, a passcode is the simplest defense to stopping a stranger from ransacking your sensitive data, like your emails, credit card info, and photos.

This cartoon of a guy seeming only kinda safe online courtesy of the BBC

For device passcodes, make a code that is at least six digits long, with no obvious numbers related to your birthday, anniversary, or telephone number. If you have a newer phone, like the iPhone X, you can also use a scan of your face to unlock your device.

Leave Ad Trackers in the Dark 

When you browse the Internet, countless web trackers watch your every move, from the shoes you put into your online shopping cart, to your midnight Google searches, to your sudden interest in YouTube zit-popping videos (We won’t judge… harshly). These trackers use this information to build a profile about your online activity, delivering you relevant ads based on that activity.

But for some of us, the difference between “relevant” ads and creepy ones is nonexistent.

If you find this type of digital tracking invasive, you can download a tracker-blocking extension for your web browser. The New York Times, in analyzing four free extensions, recommended Disconnect, which has a free version available for Google Chrome, Safari, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, and Android.

Be Smart, Be Safe

We hope these tips help make your Internet experience safer, more secure, and more private.

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