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Keeping your identity safe online

Staying 100% safe online is near impossible, but there are a lot of steps that you can take to avoid making yourself an easy target.

Unless you are particularly averse to technology, you have probably found yourself doing more and more of your business online.

From online shopping and banking to paying your council tax, you can do it all without having to move away from your computer or smartphone.

This might be terribly convenient, but it opens you up to the risk of having your identity stolen and your bank account drained, and the nightmarish hell that this scenario implies.

Here are a few ways you can limit the risk of being a victim of online crime.

Have good virus protection and security

Viruses and malware can be used by criminals to steal any important details on your computer, including your card details, address, and login details for your online banking, email and any other accounts.

There are a couple of things you will need to consider in this regard.

Have good antivirus and firewall

In this day and age, having good antivirus software is essential – the internet is full of rapidly-evolving cyber-threats, and any antivirus worth its salt will come with regular updates to keep your computer safe.

The best antivirus software is likely to cost you some money – however, there are free options available, such as Avira or Avast.

Technology sites should have extensive reviews and comparisons of the latest versions of antivirus software, so search online to find the best one for you.

This is mostly a concern for PC users – however, antivirus software is available for other devices, such as Android phones and Apples devices.

Keep your software up to date

Making sure you have the latest versions of your software is also important – updates will patch up any security holes which have been opened up or discovered in the perpetual war between security experts and criminals.

This is particularly important for your operating system – make sure you install the latest version of Windows or iOS when it becomes available.

It’s also important to make sure your web browser is up to date – you should be able to check and fix this by going to the “About Firefox/Google Chrome/etc” section under “Help” in your browser.

Be wary of spam emails and phishing

Spam and other unsolicited emails aren’t just designed to fill your inbox – they are often sent with fraudulent purposes in mind.

Suspicious emails are often easy to spot – they might be offering you Viagra other prescription drugs at great low prices, sent with poorly written subject lines from strangely named individuals like “Violently G Celeste”.

They might even employ the infamous “Nigerian prince” con, offering you untold riches in exchange for some money upfront.

However, some can be sneakier. A common kind of phishing email is one which appears to be sent from your bank, asking you to log in to your online banking via a link to their website.

The link will take you to a page that looks exactly like the bank’s real site. If you enter your details to log in on this page, they will be harvested by criminals who can use them to access your accounts. Even if you notice the deception, the page could infect your computer with malware.

How to avoid phishing

Most banks will include some kind of identifying information in the email to make it clear that it is genuine, such as the last four digits of your card number or your postcode.

If you aren’t 100% sure about an email from your bank, don’t click on any links in it, and send it to your junk folder. If you have to log in, visit your bank’s site directly or find it through a search engine.

Here are a few other things your bank is highly unlikely to do in an email:

  • Link directly to a login page
  • Ask for your PIN, password or card details
  • Ask you to confirm a recent transaction

Your bank should have a section on their website which talks in more depth about what you should or shouldn’t expect to see in an email from them.

It isn’t just bank emails which will be used as a cover for this kind of deception, so learn to be vigilant and treat any email you weren’t expecting with suspicion.

Spam messages on social networks

These kinds of spam tactics aren’t limited to emails – you may also come across them via private messages on social networks, such as Twitter, or through messaging apps, such as WhatsApp.

These may come in the form of an enticing message (such as “OMG did you see what this person said about you”) along with a link to a page which could infect your computer or phone with malware.

Unlike with emails, these could come from people you know – spammers use compromised accounts to spread these messages. As with emails, be cautious with any messages you aren’t expecting, and don’t click on any suspicious-looking links.

Limit what you share on Facebook and Twitter

Social networks have varying degrees of fields for personal information, ranging from Twitter, which allows you to identify yourself via a username in relative anonymity, to Facebook, which requires you to use your real name and offers fields to display your address, telephone numbers, email addresses, and just about any other personally identifying information you can think of.

If you are the sort of person who feels compelled to fill every single field on your Facebook account with information, you should stave off that urge.

Listing contact details might make it easier for your friends to get in touch with you, but if that information can be accessed by someone with bad intentions, they could use it to access your bank account, or get into your email address to access other important accounts.

Sharing less important information can be dangerous too. Sharing information such as the name of your pets, the school that you went to and the town you grew up in might seem innocuous enough, but information like this is commonly used for security questions – armed with this information, a criminal could reset the password for your online banking and gain access to the funds within.

It’s not just online crime that you have to worry about. For example, if you’re going on holiday for a couple of weeks, it’s natural to want to share your excitement with your Facebook friends or Twitter followers.

While your Facebook friends’ interest in your holiday is probably minimal at best, a potential criminal might be very interested to know that your house and car will be vacant and unguarded for the next two weeks, with no one there to prevent a break-in or theft.