Every day, multiple new security threats emerge online. If you're smart about your browsing habits, you can easily safeguard yourself against some of the nastier attacks out there.
Most internet users know enough to stay out of a lot of serious trouble online. But even many of the most virus-savvy web surfers have stumbled into trouble on more than one occasion. In 2015 for instance, over 5,000 new vulnerabilities were discovered by Symantec, makers of Norton Antivirus. With malware popping up at such incredible rates, it really pays to follow a few best practices to make sure you're not an internet statistic.
We've provided a list of some of the easiest (and most important) steps you can take to protect yourself and your computer.
1. XYL (Examine Your Links)
Before clicking any link (email, search result, advertisement, etc), hover your mouse over it. See that web address that pops up in the lower left corner of your browser? That's where the link is really going to take you, even if it looks nothing like the text in the link. So if you hover over a link to TVGuide, but the lower left corner shows some strange string of characters and dots, it may just be a trap. Also stay away from any links in emails from senders you don't know or in messages from strangers on social networks.
2. Be Cautious of Browser Extensions
Browser extensions are designed to enhance your web browsing experience by giving you extra tools and features often in the form of toolbars (little buttons at the top of your browser). Some of them are indeed helpful, but the way they work makes it possible for them to track your online activity which can even include capturing passwords. If you're going to use any of them, be absolutely certain you know where they came from! For instance, Google offers plenty of extensions for Chrome that are perfectly safe. If you don't know the developer, do not install.
3. RED FLAG: Pop-Ups
These days, not many websites even use pop-ups anymore. It's a good idea to just disable them and only allow them in those odd conditions where you'd need them. If, for some reason, a website requires you enable them, it will undoubtedly inform you to enable them. It's a good idea to only enable them on that site though. Oh yeah- Never, ever, ever trust a pop-up that says you've been infected and need to install something to fix it. That's not how antivirus software works. It's a scam.
4. Protect Your Network
It's really never a good idea to use an open Wi-Fi network. Encryption is key! Using WPA or WPA2 encryption means that users must enter a password (make it a good one) to use the network. Without a password, no one's hopping on your network. Similarly, avoid open (no password) Wi-Fi networks when in public as they can place your device in harm's way if there are any baddies nearby.
5. Be Smart About Anti-Virus
Get a good one, keep it up to date, and scan your system periodically. In this day and age, it's crucial that you use something to prevent malware from festering on your machine. Go with a reliable name, like McAfee, Norton, or AVG. Whichever one you choose, install it and run with it. Don't try to install a second antivirus program as they will not cooperate and may leave your system compromised.
6. Keep Your System Current
This means updating your operating system as well as your anti-virus program. Virtually every update to any major operating system contains security fixes. Your anti-virus updates are usually chock full of them, too. In Windows and Mac OS X, you can set your computer to automatically update, and it's a good idea to do so. New threats emerge every day and the more up-to-date your system is, the safer you are.
7. Avoid File-Sharing Programs
Peer-to-Peer file sharing sites, such as BitTorrent, Ares Galaxy, and eMule are programs that are designed to allow users all over the world to (sometimes legally) share files with each other for free. Do you see the issue with that? You are quite literally inviting strangers into your computer to copy files. Many users will use a VPN to attempt to hide their computer's actual location, making it a bit safer, but either way it's still pretty risky. One of the easiest methods to steal someone's credit card info or even their identity is through a program like this. The same goes for any site that facilitates this without its own downloadable program.
8. Backup Your Data
Even if you do your absolute best to follow these rules every time, things can (and do) happen. If your system gets infected, it's not the end of the world- as long as you have a backup. Sometimes the infection is so bad that there really isn't a way to just clean it. You may have to wipe the machine completely and restore it from a backup that was made before the attack. You can find an external drive for cheap enough these days or even use an online backup service like IDrive, CrashPlan, or Carbonite.
If you think your computer may be infected, download our free PC Cleanup Guide. (But be sure to hover over the link first!)
The internet can be a scary place. But if you take just a few simple precautions to protect yourself (and your machine), you don't have to live your digital life in fear. Now go check for updates!
Sean McMillan is Arienne Associates' marketer, blogger, and all-around good guy.