October is Cyber Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to review online safety practices, including website and email security. It’s important to protect personal data online anytime of the year: Although crime rates are falling, identity theft is on the rise. Nearly 13 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2012, which is 1 million more than there were in 2011, according to a Javelin Strategy and Research study and Federal Trade Commission.
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So how do you stay safe online? Because identity thieves are constantly thinking of new scams, it pays to be cautious whenever you’re asked to provide personal information. Here are a few tips to help you improve online security during Cyber Awareness Month — and throughout the year.
1. Get to Know SSL. Make sure you only conduct transactions on SSL-certified sites: Virtually all reputable ecommerce sites provide a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate, which means that a secure link between the site and your browser has been verified — it’s an assurance that the site uses encryption to keep hackers away from credit card data and other personal information.
It’s usually easy to tell if a site has an SSL certificate — the URL will begin with “HTTPS” rather than “HTTP.” There will also be a lock icon to the left of the address in the URL window. You can click the icon to see the certifying organization that verified data encryption for the site. Keep in mind that hackers can create convincing fake HTTPS sites, so you can’t be 100% sure about a site on the strength of an SSL certificate alone – think of it as one tool in your anti-hacking arsenal.
2. Don’t give personal information out via email. “Phishing” is a type of scam con artists use to get unwary people to divulge personal information. Phishers can email requests for credit card verification, account numbers or other personal data — requests that look like they’re coming from a legitimate merchant or bank. A phisher can even make the email address domain look legitimate at a glance by substituting a number for a similar looking letter, exchanging an “O” for a zero or an “l” for a one, for example, and embedding company logos in the email.
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For that reason, it’s important to never give out personal information via email. If it’s a legitimate commercial request, the merchant or financial institution will generally not contact you by email to ask for the verification but rather request that you to contact them directly or log in to your secure account.
3. Watch out for links or downloads in emails. Prompting email recipients or site visitors to click a link or download a plugin is another way scammers get their hands on vital personal data. Phishers are adept at creating phony sites that look very legitimate – often they steal the web page source code directly from bank and merchant sites to mimic the look and feel of legitimate sites precisely.
By using these phony sites, scammers can trick visitors into giving up passwords, user names, account information, credit card numbers and other data that cyber criminals can then use to steal identities and rack up major debt. It’s safer to type in the site address yourself to make sure the account is legitimate. Also avoid plugins and downloads in emails: Key-logger software can be introduced that logs every keystroke you make without your knowledge, including passwords and credit card numbers.
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The Bottom Line
Cyber Awareness Month is a great time to stop and think about the measures you take to protect your identity online. It’s important to make sure your antivirus software is up to date and to be careful not to overshare on public sites like Facebook and Twitter. Identity theft protection is a good idea too – it can help you recover quickly and limit liability if your personal information is stolen.
It’s also crucial to be aware of the risks you take when conducting business online, visiting ecommerce sites or responding to emails from senders who claim to be representing financial institutions, online merchants or other organizations that have access to your private data. Identity theft costs billions each year, so make sure you protect yourself by taking these commonsense measures all year long.
About the Author
Stephen Ebbett is President of ProtectYourBubble, a new kind of insurance brand that understands that 21st century lives are busy and complicated and offers an online service that makes insurance simple and uncomplicated. The company offers a range of products, such as identity theft protection (this links to http://us.protectyourbubble.com/id-theft), that has been specifically tailored to offer protection in a fast changing, modern world, so that customers are prepared with the coverage and support they need in the event the unexpected happens. Visit ProtectYourBubble.com for more information.
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