Saturday, October 17, 2020

Protecting Yourself and Your Family in Cyberspace

By Timothy Gamble

Cyberspace sī′bər-spās noun: 1) The interconnected world of computer networks, digital communications, and the Internet. 2) The interdependent systems of digital information, telecommunications networks, and digital infrastructure. 3) The whole of the Internet, including all devices capable of accessing the Internet, as well as all associated infrastructure.  

Cyberspace. The word has its origins in science fiction, but today it is simply reality. Virtually every human is connected to cyberspace in some way. If you have a smart phone, you are in cyberspace. If you have a computer or use a computer, you are in cyberspace. If you have email, you are in cyberspace. If you have a Facebook account, or are on Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media, you are in cyberspace. If you have GPS in your car, you are in cyberspace. If you buy things from Amazon, or any other online retailer, you are in cyberspace. If you have a bank account, retirement account, or any other financial account, you are in cyberspace. If you are reading this article, you are in cyberspace. And the list goes on... 

Cyberspace has many advantages. It facilitates easy and quick communication. It disseminates  knowledge. It enhances markets. It is even a source of entertainment. But, dangers do lurk in cyberspace. As in the real world, there are bad guys, ranging from bullies and troublemakers to actual criminals and others seeking to do great harm, Being in cyberspace  puts you at risk to viruses, spyware, ransomware and other forms of malware. It puts you at risk of fraud, identity theft, and loss of privacy. It puts your life on display to nosy neighbors, self-righteous activists, intolerant social justice warriors, snooping employers, and petty government bureaucrats. For small businesses, being in cyberspace brings with it potential legal liabilities, as they have an obligation to protect their customers' and clients' personal and financial information. 

In today's world, being in cyberspace is a necessity. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to live a modern life completely separate from cyberspace. That being the case, how do we protect ourselves and our families from the threats found in cyberspace? Here are some suggestions:

1- Use security software and keep it updated. Security software includes antivirus programs, firewalls, anti-spyware, anti-ransomware, and anti-malware programs. Make sure you are updating your security programs on a regular basis (daily is best). Be aware that the "free" software that came with your new computer or laptop was most likely only for a "limited time," during which you had to subscribe (pay money) to the software maker to continue using it. After the limited time period expired, often in 30-days or less, your security software either turned off, in full or in part, or quit doing automatic updates.

2- Update your operating system and other programs on a regular basis. Keeping your computer and smartphone updated is a hassle, but these updates often include security fixes. Not updating your computer and smartphone on a regular basis puts you at risk as new threats emerge daily in cyberspace.

3-  Secure your Wi-Fi.  Your Wi-Fi router is the physical device that controls who can connect to your wireless network. Make sure you are using one with at least WPA2 encryption, and enable encryption on the router. Make sure you are using a strong password, and are keeping that password private. 

4- Use a strong password. And use a different password for each account. This means not using "password" or "12345" or your wife's maiden name, or your favorite sports team, or you kid's birthday, or any other common and easily-guessed password. Don't make it easy for a hacker by using the same password for every account. Use different passwords for your bank, email, social media, Amazon, PayPal, and other accounts. Consider using two-step or multi-factor authentication when available, especially on your bank and other financial accounts. Sure, it is a hassle. But it is much less of a hassle than having some bad guy drain all the money from your bank account.  

5- Don't fall for the phishing bait. Phishing is an attempt by bad guys to trick you into giving away passwords or other private information by pretending to be an official email, text message, or website from a trusted source. Be wary of unsolicited emails and text messages. Be very wary of emails or text messages that insist you must respond immediately, or you'll be locked out of your account. These are almost always scams. 

Make sure the email address or website url is spelled correctly (bad guys often use slight misspellings of the company's url to trick folks who aren't paying close attention). Be wary of websites that contain a lot of misspellings, grammatical mistakes, or pages that won't open. Legitimate companies will be more professional. 

Large companies use email addresses tied to their domain name, not to public email services. For example, your bank uses email addresses similar to employee@BankName.com, but never employee@yahoo.com or employee@gmail.com.

Remember, deals that seem too good to be true, probably are to good to be true. Don't let your greed overtake your commonsense. 

6- If you can't verify, delete. It is best to simply delete SPAM without opening it. Also, delete, without opening any links, suspicious emails and text messages from unknown and unidentifiable sources. 

7- Make back-ups often. Important data can be lost multiple ways, including computer malfunctions, loss or theft of your device, viruses, or ransomware attacks. Backing up your your important data on a regular basis will make your life easier if your data is lost, and will make it less likely you'll have to give in to a ransomware attack.  

Data can be backed-up in multiple ways, including online or cloud storage, portable external hard drives (here's a good one on Amazon: Seagate 2TB for less than $65), or USB flash drives (I use and recommend the GorilaDrive brand). 

8- Stay away from the "red light districts" and bad neighborhoods of cyberspace. Just like in real life, cyberspace has its share of places to avoid. You can become a victim anywhere, but you are much more likely to become one if you hang out in bad places, both in real life and online. Stay away from porn sites, illicit pharmaceutical sites, gambling sites, and other vice-associated sites. Even if those websites are legitimate and safe, they often link to very shady websites that may be infested with phishing attempts, viruses, malware, and ransomware. Deal only with companies and websites that you know and trust. 

9- Don't overshare on social media. Privacy is important, but it is virtually non-existent in cyberspace. Once you put it on the Internet, it is out there forever. Just ask any celebrity or politician who said something stupid, then tried to delete it. Screenshots are forever.  Even if you have your social media account set to "private," your information is still available to the social media company, government and law enforcement, and those people who you allow to follow you. Any of those people can, accidentally or on purpose, leak that information publicly. Think carefully about what you share on social media, and who might see it.

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