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Importance of practicing safe computing

December 17, 2007

by Mark Ollig

When we send personal information over the Internet are we sure only the intended destination is viewing it?

We access news, entertainment and information. We download music, games and check our bank balances online.

Some of us (your humble columnist included) will remotely access our workplace desktop computers from home to check e-mails or continue working on a project.

We are doing more of our business online, setting up automatic bill paying and placing orders over the Internet.

We are entering our personal credit card information online. I have found more online sites using the popular PayPal system, including eBay, so I set up my checking account and use PayPal for most of my online transactions.

The Internet also provides anonymity – it has the ability to hide those who would use it as path or doorway from the negative perspective . . . the online scammers, hackers and those who attempt to access our computer in order to steal our personal information.

One of the best defenses is our own awareness.

Identity theft is on the rise, with those out there who are trying to steal our personal financial information, credit records and more.

The reality is that any one of us can be a victim of identity theft.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, there are millions of victims each year.

Computer thieves attempt to gain access to their victims’ personal information while they are online.

I visited a federal government website that provided some useful tips that can help minimize our risk to identity theft while we are online.

If you are asked for your personal information like your name, e-mail or home address, phone number, account numbers, or Social Security number, first find out how it is going to be used and how it will be protected before you share it. If you have children, teach them to not give out your last name, your home address, or your phone number on the Internet.

If you get an e-mail or pop-up message asking for personal information, do not reply or click on the link in the message. The safest course of action is not to respond to requests for your personal or financial information. If you believe there is a justified need for such information by a company, contact that company directly.

In any case, be cautious about sending your personal information via e-mail, as e-mail is not always a 100 percent secure transmission method.

If you are shopping online, do not give your personal or financial information through a company’s website until you have checked for “indicators” that the site is secure. Some indicators would be visual, like a “lock icon” on the browser’s status bar or a website URL that begins “https:” (the “s” stands for “secure”). Unfortunately, no indicator is fail-safe – some scammers even have counterfeit security icons.

Read website privacy policies. They should explain what personal information the website collects, how the information is used.

If you do not see a privacy policy or if you cannot understand it, think about doing business elsewhere.

Another important thing is to know who you are dealing with.

When we are face-to-face with the seller, we can judge their honesty and trustworthiness. However, when doing business online, you cannot judge a seller by looking at them in the eye. If you are shopping online and unfamiliar with the company, make sure you check them out before you buy.

A legitimate business or individual seller should give you a physical address and a working telephone number at which they can be contacted in case you have a question or any problems.

I want to mention those local area brick-and-mortor businesses that have a website presence on the Internet. These online businesses are probably located close to where you live and would perhaps make for a more comfortable online visit.

We need to remember how important it is to use anti-virus and anti-spyware software to protect our computers. We need to update this software regularly.

I use “Webroot Spy Sweeper” on my home computer. It is set up with automatic updates and continuously “sweeps” (checks) my computer for any viruses. If it finds a spyware virus, it quarantines it and alerts me. It also removes any “malware” (malicious software) that is designed to harm my computer.

The Norton Protection Center anti-virus software is also on my computer. Symantec makes this popular computer protection software. I found it to be an excellent program that maintains the security of my computer.

You can use these software utilities for finding and deleting software bugs that might be harmful to your computer. Whatever program you use, make sure it is updated regularly. Most commercial anti-virus software today includes a feature to download updates automatically when you are on the Internet.

Check out this federal government website for more information on how to protect yourself while online: http://onguardonline.gov/.

This website at the Federal Trade Commission provides a wealth of information on how to protect against identity theft, visit http://www.ftc.gov/idtheft.