Six ways to stay safe online

If you are a relative novice when it comes to using the Internet, there are few things you should know to keep yourself safe, especially when e-mailing and using social media. We won't cover anti-virus and firewall software, as you should already be running a firewall and updated anti-virus software on your PC, but we are going to take a look at the browsing habits that can lead to spam, identity theft and infections.

Never reply to spammers

The first rule is to never reply to spam e-mails. Never be tricked into clicking on any links that tell you to unsubscribe from sites that you have never visited in the first place, as this will merely bring more spam to your inbox. If you use an online e-mail account such as Gmail, the chances are that your spam is well filtered and goes directly into the spam folder instead of your inbox. It's harder with an ISP-based e-mail account, but if you know how to use your e-mail client think about setting up rules for the type of mail you receive. For example, you can filter any e-mails that aren't directly addressed to you, or you can filter out e-mails with certain keywords in the subject (great if you aren't interested in getting some new V!@GR4). You can also block any senders that you don't know. Another step you can take is to flag the spam with your ISP. Send an e-mail to your ISP's support staff, and include the headers from the e-mails you received so that they can take action. Or you can use the free reporting service at Spamcop.net.

Also, if you must forward joke e-mails to your friends, remove the previous e-mail addresses from the e-mail and blind CC everyone, or send to your mailing group, rather than adding everyone's address to the 'To:' field for everyone to see. You never know which of your friends might end up being a stalker!

Keep a lid on Facebook and other social sites

The same goes for Facebook, chat clients and any other social media you choose: don't add people who you don't know in real life, and don't add any and every application that a friend invites you to. As the applications on Facebook are from third-parties, you are putting yourself at risk by letting anyone access your information. Of course, you could always remove your date of birth and marital status, and not use your real name — all these are good ways to keep your identity safe. If you must add people that you don't know in real life then allow them access only to your limited profile.

Just say 'No'

One more thing on letting applications and Web sites access your personal information; there are some sites, such as travel sites that let people know where in the world you are, which say they need access to your e-mail account in order to add your contacts and e-mail them to let them know when you are away. Specifically, I am talking about a site called WAYN. Don't say yes to anything this site asks you for, and if you receive an e-mail from a friend telling you to join up with WAYN, don't do it! It will send e-mails to everyone in your contacts list, even after you unsubscribe, and your friends will want to beat you up when they see you.

Beware Russian Web sites

If you're the type of person who likes to go looking for illegitimate software and entertainment, as well as porn, then do yourself a favour and try not to visit any Russian Web sites. Some sites ending in .ru, and some based in other former Eastern Bloc countries, are littered with applets and scripts that infect your PC with malicious software and sometimes your antivirus program and firewall will be unable to detect it.

Run Firefox

In fact, to keep yourself safe you should use Firefox as your Web browser, along with the Adblock Plus plugin. Adblock will make your site browsing experience cleaner, quicker and safer as it won't load ads from popular ad servers. It's especially useful if you browse the Web on a mobile broadband card, as it can cut many megabytes from your overall usage. An extreme measure you can take if you want total security is to disable Java and Javascript in the Firefox options. However, doing this will not let you use Gmail (at least in the fashion you normally do — there is a non-Javascript version of Gmail available) and some other sites.

Remember your own passwords

It's good practice, even though it can be annoying, to remember all of your own passwords and not let your Web browser remember any of them. This is especially useful if you use a laptop or a public computer. Also keep in mind that if you use online banking, shopping and email sites, your Web sessions need to be encrypted. Look in the lower-right of the Web browser for the padlock logo. If it's not there, then don't put in your password. If you use Gmail, you can make sure you use an encrypted session by adding an "s" to the URL. So instead of visiting http://mail.google.com, you should visit https://mail.google.com.

The same advice goes for Windows Messenger and any other chat clients you use: don't let Windows remember the password and automatically log in, unless you know for sure that no one besides you will use that particular computer.

In the end, you can have all the security software in the world installed on your computer, but if your browsing habits are dangerous then you will still suffer from malware infections and compromised private information. Hopefully, some of these tips will help you keep safe while you browse.

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Elias Plastiras
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