Article by Evan Walker.
In the digital world we live in, the importance of cybersecurity for protecting your data and staying safe online has never been more apparent.
From our own personal usage to business applications, we live on the internet. So, just like you wouldn’t walk down a dark alleyway in fear of getting robbed, why would you click an unknown link or not take precautions online?
Now, you may be asking yourself if this is all overkill.
After all, most of us have some sort of antivirus on our computers these days, so isn’t that enough in terms of staying safe online?
Well, as our online presence increases, so does the number of cyber attacks.
According to RiskBased, data breaches exposed 4.1B private records in the first half of 2019, which is the most we’ve ever seen.
Plus, over 70% of these attacks were financially motivated, with 61% of these breaches attributed to malware and phishing/social attacks.
Luckily, you can vastly limit your risk and protect yourself using these basic internet safety tips without spending a fortune (or anything, even) and without significantly altering your internet usage habits.
Strategies For Staying Safe Online
It’s important to remember that there are different levels of security you can go for here.
For most casual internet users, you should be able to significantly improve your online security with a few free or affordable software options and tricks mentioned below.
1. Use A Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A Virtual Private Network, simply put, keeps your private information private.
This may seem inconsequential, but a VPN is absolutely essential for digital nomads, frequent travelers, or anyone who accesses the internet through unsecure public networks.
VPNs use encryption, allowing you to browse the internet with very little risk of being hacked or leaving a digital footprint. They also help keep your information more secure and anonymous when online.
For example, if you ever used public WiFi or hotspots to access your bank account, send emails, or really do anything online, hackers have the ability to get their hands on your passwords, emails, photos/videos and credit card information.
With a VPN, this is much less likely.
An additional benefit of VPNs is the anonymity of your browsing content and location.
VPNs also allow for largely anonymous browsing by connecting to secure servers around the world, letting you use a different IP and server than your own network. This also allows you to choose the location where you want to access specific content from.
A prime use of VPNs, for example, is to connect to different IP addresses to bypass geo-restricted content. Think Netflix or sports streams.
By hiding your IP address, you can also potentially bypass dynamic pricing to save money.
For example, if consumers in California are willing to pay more for the same product versus those in Florida, companies may take advantage of this fact and adjust their prices accordingly. WalMart, Amazon, and Best Buy, just to name a few…
With so many VPN options available, it may be hard to choose or even differentiate.
Nevertheless, there’s 3 main VPN services I’d recommend to stay safe online:
- NordVPN – As low as $3.49 per month for access to nearly 6,000 secure servers in almost 60 countries.
- Hotspot Shield – The self-proclaimed fastest VPN. Hotspot Shield has a nifty free plan that grants 500MB per day of bandwidth or a premium plan for $7.99 per month.
- ExpressVPN – ExpressVPN is the most popular consumer-facing VPN with over 3,000 servers in more than 90 countries. ExpressVPN has a 30 day free trial and offers monthly plans for as low as $8.32 per month.
Ultimately, any top-tier VPN lets you browse the web with a greater level of security when you’re on an unsecure network.
Plus, being able to bypass content restrictions for free and potentially dodge dynamic pricing are added bonuses for your wallet.
2. Install An Antivirus
In addition to protecting and encrypting your data from hackers by using a VPN, an antivirus software can complement your online security by screening websites, files, software and applications for malware/viruses.
Although it might sound a bit extreme, having a simple antivirus on your computer is an immensely low-effort way to stay safe online.
But, you don’t have to take my word for it. Below are some quick antivirus internet safety statistics:
- With the average time to identify a virus or breach being 206 days in 2019, it’s clear to see how important early detection is.
- 1 in 13 online requests lead to malware according to internet security statistics from Symantec.
- With the average cost of lost/stolen records per person in the United States and Canada being $225 and $190 respectively, it’s easy to justify the extra investment in an antivirus software. Think of it like an insurance policy.
When considering which antivirus to use, functionality is key.
Some things you should look for in an anti-virus include:
- Real-time detection and removal of malware.
- Stopping of exploit attacks.
- Blocking of ransomware attacks.
- Shielding against malicious websites.
Although there are many free antivirus programs out there, I’ve figured out the hard way that you really do get what you pay for.
3. Setup MultiFactor Authentication (MFA)
That extra level of protection!
MFA, often used interchangeably with two-factor authentication (2FA), increases your safety and security online by requiring an additional password or push notification to log in.
These are typically a time-based one-time password (TOTP) that is sent to a 3rd party application on your phone for you to verify.
If you’ve ever tried logging into your Gmail or Facebook account and been prompted to verify your login on your phone, you’re already using MFA!
MFA is an easy way to improve your online security. If you’re the unfortunate victim of a hacker, even though they have your password, they won’t be able to log in unless they have your phone.
And, even if they do have your phone, it’s likely locked with a different password or fingerprint scanner making it inaccessible.
Both extremely reliable and simple to use, although LastPass authenticator requires you to have an existing account (which just takes 2 minutes to create).
Oh yeah, did I mention they’re free?
4. Remain Vigilant For Phishing Attacks
Hackers are getting craftier each year, but email phishing is still the most common method hackers use in their attempts to steal personal information.
After all, in Verizon’s 2019 Data Breach Investigation Report, 94% of malware was delivered by email.
You may be asking “how can I protect myself from these hackers?”
The simple answer is to be vigilant and to use common sense!
All emails sent by credible organizations or your bank will NEVER ask for personal information, so if you see one that asks, don’t open it!
Another internet safety tip is to remain aware of new methods hackers use to gain access to personal information, such as your login credentials or financial information.
One of the more clever schemes I’ve recently seen directly targets mobile devices.
They use what’s called URL padding, which acts to mask the malicious link by “padding” it with a legitimate looking URL separated by a bunch of hyphens. This takes advantage of smaller screen sizes to hide the malicious looking link:
In actuality, the link might look something like: “http://m.facebook.com—————-validate—-step1.rickytaylk[dot]com/sign_in.html”
Not so easy to distinguish now, is it?
The landing page is almost a perfect copy of what Facebook’s real mobile landing page would be and the link seems to look legitimate. But watch out for those hyphens! If you’re unsure, always check the full URL to make sure you’re actually clicking the link you want.
In recent years, we’ve also seen a rise in SMS or texting scams directed towards your mobile phone, and more specifically the financial industry.
Although there are thousands of possible scams, some popular ones involve a message asking you to login to confirm your information, with a link at the end of the message. Even if the link may appear legitimate, you can be rerouted to a malicious site to try and steal your banking information.
Lastly, scammers add attachments to a seemingly “normal” email.
Although these attachment formats can be anything, “.doc”, “.exe and “.dot” are the most popular, together making up 56.5% of the top malicious email types.
5. Consider Identity Theft Protection
This may seem like overkill, and for most consumers it is.
But, of course, this all takes time and consistency. This problem is why various identity theft protection services are so popular.
ID theft protection companies work by scanning the dark web for your personal information, monitoring your credit score, and analyzing bank changes.
Many can include a built in insurance policy covering up to $1,000,000 of losses. Some higher end packages can also include desktop and mobile antivirus softwares.
But, keep in mind, your personal information is probably already on the dark web with how many major data breaches there have been.
Additionally, you should know that identity theft protection services cannot remove your personal information from the dark web or actually prevent your identity from being stolen.
These services really act as a monitoring tool. Many companies also offer post-theft assistance and restoration services, but it’s important to read all the terms and features of the company you pick to understand what’s covered.
There are tons of identity theft services being offered out there but my personal favorite is Identity Guard.
If you’ve been a part of a recent data breach and don’t want to spend time monitoring your credit score or personal banking information, an identity theft protection service might be worth it.
Otherwise, these services are a money-grab and they aren’t worth your time.
6. Exercise Common Sense
This is a powerful tool!
Remember the Nigerian Prince scam?
Everyone knows about that one. But you may be surprised to hear this decade old scam still brings in over $700,000 per year according to CNBC.
These things happen even more often now – seldom do you find a deal or catch a break with no strings attached, and this doesn’t change when you go online.
So, at risk of sounding cliche – if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
7. Use A Password Manager
Many people use the same password or basic passwords for their devices/accounts. The problem with this practice is that it makes it easier to get hacked.
In fact, 81% of account breaches involve the use of weak passwords according to LastPass.
When creating a strong password, you should keep a couple things in mind: make it long, use a mix of characters, and don’t use memorable keyboard paths (sequential numbers/characters).
It may seem painstaking having multiple different long, complicated passwords but there is a solution…a password manager.
Password managers are usually free or very affordable, and they use encryption to keep your information private yet easily accessible for you.
A leading password management app with multiple integration is LastPass.
The great thing about LastPass is the web extension makes it easy to access a log of all your passwords, saving you from having to open the app and manually type in your strong password for the different sites you use.
8. Don’t Forget Internet Safety For Kids
With some kids having iPads before they can even walk, the internet is truly accessible to everyone – although this is a double edged sword.
No matter how effective your efforts to lower your online risk are, if your child accidentally clicks one wrong link, your whole network can become compromised.
One effective way to decrease your risk is to monitor your child’s activity. This can be in-person or through a 3rd party service.
One popular option is Qustodio, which lets parents see how their child interacts with web content, manage usage time limits, and ultimately protect their kids from harmful and/or inappropriate sites.
Most importantly, sitting down to talk to your child about the internet and online safety is key.
It’s great to have a software to block these threats, but ultimately, you want your child to understand how and why a site can be harmful.
And remember, you’re only as strong as your weakest entry point!
Ultimately, you can never fully escape the wrath of hackers and scammers, but you can greatly reduce your chances of contracting a virus or having your personal data stolen if you take some basic steps.
By using 3rd party apps or software, you can make it much harder (if not close to impossible) for your system to be hacked.
Installing a free or affordable VPN will keep you secure while on the go, and setting up MFA on your primary logins/emails will also beef up security.
To take things one step further, you can also download a simple antivirus software and use a password manager to secure your login details
Again, you don’t have to spend a fortune here, or potentially anything at all. There are plenty of free or very affordable internet security suites out there that are worth it in this day and age.
These basic steps, alongside vigilance and a high level of skepticism, will ultimately help you stay safe online.
If you’re a digital nomad, make a living online, or generally deal with all of your precious financial information on your computer/phone, these internet safety tips are even more important.
My suggestion is to think of these products as investments to your financial and online safety. A relatively small amount of money in software costs is easily worth it if you want peace of mind and to remain secure when browsing the web.
Do you have a favorite tip for how to stay safe online? Let us know in the comments!
Evan is a Finance graduate from Canada working in the Canadian banking industry. With 5+ years of banking experience, Evan is knowledgeable and passionate about finance; currently pursuing his CFA.