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You might be breaking the law online and not even know it

·5 min read

If you’ve ever uploaded a video to YouTube, you know how fast it will be flagged if there’s even a hint of a copyrighted song playing in the background.

If you’re shaking your head, you’re not alone. There are many things you shouldn’t do online. Some are just plain dangerous. Tap or click for five silly mistakes putting your online privacy and security at risk.

Benign actions can put your info in the hands of clever criminals. Take your phone number. Tap or click for why you need to stop sharing your real phone number with anyone who asks.

Before we dive into my list of illegal online activities, I must remind you: I’m not a lawyer. Use your best judgment.

Getting movies for free

This illegal activity shouldn’t be a surprise. Downloading a movie – or album, eBook, audiobook, or another piece of media – from a torrenting site is a no-go. You hear a lot less about torrenting than in years past, given how easy it is to stream just about anything.

Still, people flock to download copies of newly released movies. Go to a torrenting site, hit download, and you're just as likely to get a shaky, dubbed version of what you want to watch as you are the real thing.

It could get worse. Watch the mail for a warning notice when your ISP detects you have downloaded copyright-protected content. If you don't knock it off, they could cancel your service altogether as well as alert the authorities.

Here’s something else to consider. Torrents are a common vector for spreading malware. Stay safe and only use reputable apps and services that have the right to show you what you want to watch.

Tap or click for 13 tried and true ways to watch movies for free.

Using images on your site or videos

Unless you have express permission or know for sure that a photo is in the public domain, it’s not yours to use or share online. It’s unlikely you’re going to get nailed for copyright infringement by posting a meme on Facebook. However, be especially careful when posting images to your website or using images in your videos.

At best, you’ll get a slap on the wrist. At worst, you could end up with a bill for tens of thousands of dollars for posting someone else’s work without permission or credit.

If you’re going to Google Images, typing in a search term, and pulling down the best photos that pop up, you’re going to get into trouble eventually. Tap or click for free, legal ways to find solid images for any purpose.

Like what you’re reading? Get my smart tips for a better digital life right to your inbox. Sign up here. (It’s free!)

Bypassing paywalls

Years ago, you could access most news sites online for free. Today, you're hit with paywalls on most major sites. Some of us get out our credit cards and often pay for the sites we visit.

Others find clever ways around the paywalls, like browser extensions or other tricks. Before you celebrate, know that it’s illegal. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act says you cannot go around technology meant to restrict access to copyrighted material.

Sharing passwords

Raise your hand if you have ever shared a password for a streaming service or other subscription. Not only is that against the terms you agreed to when you signed up, but it might also be illegal. Depending on how you interpret it, the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act implies using someone else's passwords is a federal crime.

Now, don’t expect Netflix to come knocking at your door. Things are changing. Netflix is starting to stop people from mooching off accounts.

Are you spending too much money on subscription services? Tap or click for your action plan to cut back.

Using particular search terms

There are some things you should not search for online. You can guess, but the list includes child abuse materials, hiring the services of a criminal and steps to make a bomb.

Then there are the things you should never Google for other reasons. Tap or click for a list of search terms that could put you at risk online.

Downloading YouTube videos

Maybe you find a video that perfectly explains a subject you’re trying to learn. You download the video so you can reference it again later. No harm, right? Not so fast.

According to YouTube's terms of service, you cannot download content without express permission from the creator. And, of course, standard copyright laws apply too.

Videos that fall into the Public Domain, Creative Commons and CopyLeft are fair game for downloading, though you could still be violating YouTube’s Terms of Service.

Stick to adding videos you want to come back to to a playlist. Tap or click for some simple YouTube tricks you’ll use again and again.

Bonus Tip: Essential tech cleanups to do before 2022

Is your digital life in need of a little TLC? Listen for smart ways to tidy up your tech, inside and out. You'll learn a few cleaning secrets, along with simple methods of sorting the clutter, clearing out junk and freeing up space on your devices. It looks like you just found your new holiday project.

Check out my podcast “Kim Komando Explains” on Apple, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast player.

Listen to the podcast here or wherever you get your podcasts. Just search for my last name, “Komando.”

Learn about all the latest technology on the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Illegal online activities: You may be breaking the law and not know it