Staying Safe on a Dangerous Internet

by Peter Zimmerman

The Internet has become a major part of our world. The amount of information and content on the Internet over the past several years has multiplied tremendously. Much of our lives revolve around websites, social media sites, and experiences we have online. In turn, we communicate those experiences with our friends and family. The fact is much of the Internet is fun, entertaining, useful, and rewarding. The Internet has increased our knowledge and opened our eyes to people, places, and information we would have never experienced in a pre-Internet world.

As fun and exciting as the Internet is, there is a very dark side to it as well. It is a side that threatens you and your family. The dark side of the Internet is filled with people that may stalk you and your family to cause harm.  Their ultimate goal is to take what you have.  Protecting yourself and your family has to be a top priority, if it isn’t you may end up spending a lot of time and money trying to repair the damage that may be done.

Here’s a list of 4 serious dangers that exist in today’s Internet world:

1. Identity theft. By far the greatest danger out there, identity theft comes in many different forms, and almost always results in great harm or damage to your reputation, your credit score, and perhaps your bank account.

2. Sexual Predators. These are criminals that prey on naïve or young victims. Their motives are sexual harassment and/or theft. Violence is also a concern with these types of crimes. There are no limitations to the kind of people being targeted, but they are usually female and young.

3. Extortion. They are schemes that criminals use to steal personal information and then try to use it against you with a common goal, to get your money. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) report an increase in the use of personal information published in a malicious way to scam victims out of money. They post the stolen information and then demand money to have it removed. These are commonly related to dating websites but exist elsewhere as well.

4. Email Scams. Beware of unsolicited emails sent asking for personal information or making promises of cash rewards that are not true and used only as bait. IC3 publishes regular press releases concerning these attempts, which change and evolve from time to time. Also, be aware of emails with virus-ridden attachments used for phishing purposes.

With these very real dangers in mind, what can be done to protect us? First, don’t panic! Put together a game plan to protect you and your family. Many of the following suggestions you may already know about and are using, others may be new to you. The most important rule of thumb is to be fanatical about keeping your family’s personal information private. Once the information escapes on the Internet it is very difficult, if not impossible to claw back.

Instill the same sense of urgency in your family. It is essential they share your sense of security and drive to keep the family safe. One weak link can expose the entire family to danger. Younger children and teenagers frequently feel invisible, and that can allow them to act recklessly on the Internet. Also, today’s quest among the young (and sometimes adults as well) is one of fame. “How many followers can I attract? What video can I produce that will give me instant fame and popularity among my peers?” We have all been there, and our world may not have presented the same kind of constant danger as today’s, but that requires us to be alert constantly as we address the present dangers.

The list of dangers above presented the facts about the dangers of today’s Internet. The following list presents the key elements of staying safe from these dangers:

1. Never post any personally identifiable information to the Internet for public viewing. For instance, never post your name, address, and/or telephone for public viewing on any public website, social media sites included. Thieves will grab that information and connect it to other information that may have stolen from you. If you must post this information to private, secure websites, do it only sparingly with those you trust.

2. The following advice may sound paranoid, but it is another step to keep your family safe.  Unless required, consider sharing your picture only with family and friends. Your picture can be used against you as part of Internet scams and extortion.  True or false information can be posted alongside your photo and personal information with a later demand for money. Many of these scam websites exist in countries outside the realm of U.S. law enforcement.

3. Install virus protection software on your computer, regardless of the type of computer or operating system you are using. The software should examine websites, cookies, incoming emails, tracking devices, etc. Skimping in the area of software protection is a big mistake.

4. If you have children, install software that controls the websites they can visit and will warn you of any potential threats to your children via a log or instant alerts. The software packages examined for this article had that ability to block dangerous behavior and immediately text a parent when suspicious activity is occurring. Those are priceless features and highly recommended.

5. Even more important than #4 is talking to your children. Explain to them the dangers presented by the Internet and then suggest websites that you know are safe and that they may find interesting or fun. Working with them, watching them, and communicating will educate them on how to be safe online. Consider locating your children’s computers in the family room so there are no secrets or dangers you are not aware of.

6. Change your passwords on bank sites, investment sites, and other accounts regularly. Never use common words, birthdays, or other personally identifiable information as passwords. Passwords used by the whole family need to be random with no specific meaning.

7. Scan your computer hard drives regularly for viruses or Trojans (files infected with software that steals information) that may have slipped by your protection. You can never be too safe from Internet criminals. Running this software just adds to the layers of protections.  Never open email attachments from someone you are unfamiliar with.

8. Use the Internet as reference and communication material, when at all possible don’t store information on a website that you wouldn’t want the most vicious of criminals to see. What is harmless to one person may be a gold mine to a savvy criminal.

Hopefully this review of Internet crime, and the ways you can prevent becoming a victim of that crime has been helpful. It’s necessary from time to time to sit back and think about yours and your family’s security. Taking a few moments to install preventative measures and software can help avoid hours, days, and even weeks of doing damage control from attempted criminal activity. You have friends in cyberspace, but there are also dangerous predators and criminals. Put up the defenses that will protect you and your family for years to come. You’ll be glad you did.